“One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Since the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect — January 1st, 1863 — white Americans (of which I am one) have taken half-measures to undo the ravages of racism. For 153 years, we’ve allowed our fellow white Americans to ease into the radical notion that humans are equal, that race itself is a myth, and that protection and representation should not be calibrated based on pigmentation. We’ve allowed equality to be the apple dangling in front of anyone who is not us, parceling out bites when we see fit.
Along the way, we’ve marveled at our own magnanimity, and been shocked when others don’t shower us with credit. There is some math to this: Whether by the fault of those who raised us, society at large, or our own personal failings, we’ve learned to take up more space in this nation than we proportionally deserve. Over the course of our lifetimes, we’ve come to believe that our whiteness makes us our existence particularly relevant to the order of the universe. This explains, among other things, why the local newspaper column in which an elderly person prattles on about muffins and rascal grandchildren is inevitably written by a white person: Forget lives mattering, privilege has convinced us that our most mundane mundanities matter.
In 2017, the apple that white people hold in front of literally everyone else is getting smaller. Its rotten core has been revealed. Moreover, society at large is calling out the apple, plus the branch, and string that we use to tie our little oppression-machine together. In doing so, they are weakening it. The greatest fear of white people was never that we’d run out of apple to dangle — after all, we’d created a colossal apple when we systematically oppressed all non-white males for hundreds of years. The greatest fear was that our victims would realize: “This apple is dumb and tastes weird and I DON’T NEED IT.”
And now, three paragraphs in, you’re saying “but not all white people.” And as the writer, I too am saying “but not all white people! Look at this very essay! Look at how extraordinarily woke I am!” Which is as good a time as any for white people, myself included, to learn about “systems thinking.” If we truly consider ourselves part of a larger society, rather than just lone individuals navigating life in a vacuum, we quickly realize that none of us can divorce ourselves from the privilege our skin endows upon us. Which… tough shit. Because people of color have not been able to divorce themselves from the lack of privilege that their skin has endowed upon them, something that is, quite obviously, way worse with far more dire consequences.