The new White People’s Burden: Take a hard look in the mirror

By Robert Jensen

Published in Houston Chronicle · September, 2005

[This essay is excerpted from The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, City Lights, September 2005.]

AS devastating as the physical destruction brought by Katrina has been, it may turn out that one of the hurricane’s most enduring legacies is the way it made visible the effect of racial and class disparities on who lived and who died, who escaped early and who suffered from being left behind.

Such realities have always been clear to those on the bottom of the hierarchy, of course, and to others willing to face the reality of white supremacy predominance. But now all of white America has an opportunity to see what racialized disparities in wealth and well-being look like, in painfully raw form.

Will we take that opportunity, or turn away out of fear? Do we have the courage to face the meaning of what we have seen? The process requires a kind of honesty that is rare in the history of white America.

The first step is to recognize that for all the talk of diversity and multiculturalism — by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike — much of white America thinks of the United States as a white country. By that I don’t just mean that the majority of its citizens are white, though they are — for now but not forever, as demographics shift.

What makes the United States white in this ideological sense is the assumption, especially by people with power, that American equals white. Those people don’t say it outright; it comes out in subtle ways. Or, sometimes, in ways not so subtle.

Here’s an example: I’m in line at a store, unavoidably listening to two white men in front of me, as one tells the other about a construction job. He says: “There was this guy and three Mexicans standing next to the truck.” From other things he said, it was clear that “this guy” was Anglo, white, American. It also was clear that this man had not spoken to the “three Mexicans” and had no way of knowing whether they were Mexicans or U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage. It didn’t matter. The “guy” was the default setting for American: Anglo, white. The “three Mexicans” were not Anglo, not white, and therefore not American. It wasn’t “four guys standing by a truck.” It was “a guy and three Mexicans.” The race and ethnicity of the four men were irrelevant to the story, but the storyteller had to mark it. It was important that “the guy” not be confused with “the three Mexicans.”

Here’s another example, from the Rose Garden. At a 2004 news conference, President George W. Bush explained that he believed democracy would come to Iraq over time:

“There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren’t necessarily — are a different color than white can self-govern.”

It appears the president intended the phrase “people whose skin color may not be the same as ours” to mean people who are not from the United States. That skin color he refers to as “ours,” he makes it clear, is white. Those people not from the United States are “a different color than white.” So, white is the skin color of the United States. So, those whose skin is not white but are citizens of the United States are … ? What are they? Are they members in good standing in the nation, even if “their skin color may not be the same as ours”?

This is not simply making fun of a president who routinely mangles the language. This time he didn’t misspeak, and there’s nothing funny about it. He did seem to get confused when he moved from talking about skin color to religion (Does he think there are no white Muslims?), but it seems clear that he intended to say that brown people — Iraqis, Arabs, Muslims, people from the Middle East, whatever the category in his mind — can govern themselves, even though they don’t look like us. And “us” is clearly white. In making this magnanimous proclamation of faith in the capacities of people in other parts of the world, in proclaiming his belief in their ability to govern themselves, he made one thing clear: The United States is white. Or, more specifically, being a real “American” is being white. So, what do “we” do with citizens of the United States who aren’t white?

What do we do with peoples we once tried to exterminate to take their land? People we once enslaved? People we imported for labor and used like animals to build railroads? People we still systematically exploit as low-wage labor? All those people — indigenous, African, Asian, Latino — can obtain the legal rights of citizenship. That’s a significant political achievement, and the popular movements that forced the powerful to give people those rights provide the most inspiring stories in U.S. history. We can acknowledge these gains made in the United States — always understanding that nonwhite people, with some white allies, forced society to change — while still acknowledging the severity of the problem that remains.

But it doesn’t answer the question: What do white “Americans” do with those who share the country but are not white?

We can pretend that we have reached “the end of racism” and continue to ignore the question. But that’s just plain stupid. We can acknowledge that racism still exists and celebrate safe forms of diversity and multiculturalism while avoiding the political, economic, and social consequences of white supremacy. But, frankly, that’s just as stupid. The fact is that most of the white population of the United States has never really known what to do with those who are not white. Let me suggest a different approach.

Let’s go back to the question that W.E.B. Du Bois said he knew was on the minds of white people. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote that the question whites were afraid to ask him was: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Du Bois was identifying a burden that blacks carried — being seen by the dominant society not as people but as a problem people, as a people who posed a problem for the rest of society.

Du Bois was right to identify “the color line” as the problem of the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, it is time for whites to self-consciously reverse the direction of that question at the heart of color. It’s time for white people to fully acknowledge that in the racial arena, we are the problem.

The moral task of white America is to do something that doesn’t come naturally to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have.

We should not affirm ourselves. We should negate our whiteness, strip ourselves of the illusion that we are special because we are white, steel ourselves so that we can walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us white people. We should learn to ask ourselves, “How does it feel to be the problem?”

That is the new White People’s Burden. Instead of pretending to civilize the world, let’s try to civilize ourselves.