Addressing a culture of white supremacy: a letter to my fellow white people

Mat Chapin, Columnist

I will never understand the struggles that Black people go through on a daily basis, and it is not my place to represent those struggles. However, it is my responsibility, as it is the responsibility of every White person, to address the giant killer elephant in the room. We must confront the twisted, corruptive and disgusting conception of Whiteness that is rooted in our culture, in our history and in every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not. This includes (and is especially present in) the Whitman community. 

If you have been shocked by the events of 2020, it isn’t because the injustices are new, it’s because they simply didn’t affect you before. Many of our communities, including those at Whitman, are fueled by a massive lie that tells us on a subliminal and very real level that White people are more deserving of protection and love and safety.  Growing up in America, these lies are fed to us through our families, our schools, our churches and our media. It is impossible to avoid, and we must learn to recognize it.  The Whitman bubble doesn’t exist outside of racist American culture, it just makes some aspects easier to ignore for white students. In many ways, it isn’t even a bubble, but rather blinders that keep us ignorant and complicit. 

Sometimes white supremacy at Whitman manifests in casual racism and other unacceptable behaviors that we try to disguise as banter or well-meaning jokes. Sometimes it’s blatant hatred and violence. The fact that we don’t believe that we are explicitly part of the problem doesn’t mean that we get to sit back and claim to be part of the solution.  Feeling like we aren’t racist is not the same thing as actively fighting for BIPOC. Loving Black culture is not the same thing as respecting Black people. Emails in solidarity with the Black community is not the same thing as hiring and supporting Black and POC professors. Posting a black square on Instagram is not the same thing as protesting police brutality. 

I know many people who are upset by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police, but then turn around and condemn the riots in Minnesota. White people don’t get to decide how Black people fight for their freedom and their lives. White people don’t get to say that riots are crossing a line, because doing so is saying that property is more important than Black lives. We are used to media that is constantly trying to assassinate the character of victims of police brutality. White culture has used every conceivable excuse to explain away the systematic oppression and murder of Black Americans.  There is no excuse for murdering an unarmed Black person; there is no excuse for murdering an armed one, either. There are no circumstances that excuse the fact that Black bodies are treated as disposable, and that their murderers walk the streets with impunity. White people, as the creators of this system of oppression, must step forward to actively dismantle it. 

First and foremost, we have to take responsibility for our history.  White culture has oppressed Black bodies in America for 400 years, and the scars left by these injustices are never going to heal until unless we acknowledge that they never stopped bleeding. Policing in America is an institution built on the assumption of Black criminality. This country pumps endless cash into a system that incites violence to feed the prison-industrial complex, the newest remodel of slavery. And Whitman, like many colleges, benefits from ongoing partnerships with those institutions.  In order to find a way forward, we have to rethink the way that our college, and our community, are complicit in structures of oppression.

The fact that people in this country are still arguing about whether or not Black lives matter is evil, and I don’t use that word lightly. We need to stop having conversations about why Black lives have value and start examining the aspects of our own culture that make us question their value in the first place. Our culture of Whiteness is a disease that makes us believe we can set conditions on other people’s value. There is no room in these conversations for semantics and for excuses. We need to take responsibility for the atrocities committed by our culture, not because we are personally responsible for the past, but because the atrocities never stopped; we still benefit from them. The learning curve is sharp for many, but the reality is that the world is not going to wait for us to come to terms with the notion of equality.