Fellow White People, Just a Reminder, All our White Heroes are Racist Too

It is so easy to celebrate and revere white people, but it is important to remember that our platforms are the product of white supremacy.

I love award shows. I always have. Last night, watching the Emmy’s, I was struck again by how many white people are present on screen at any given moment, validating the centrality of whiteness (often mediocre whiteness) in our society.

Growing up queer and trans, I was keenly aware of how deeply I longed for representation of myself in popular discourse and imagery but even as I craved a version of my story, I never lacked for images of people, success, and celebration that looked like me and my family — that tracked the possibility of my life as it was laid out for me.

In recent years, these awards shows have rightly been called out by people of color for failing to honor and center the work of the many artists of color who work harder for less, build more creatively only to be appropriated, tell their stories of trauma only to be exploited by an industry and society run and controlled by white people. The hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, highlighted this point and shed a public light (for white people) on the many ways in which people of color, particularly Black people, are erased from awards, honors, and celebration in Hollywood and across society.

I was waiting for the acceptance speech from a white person that recognized how their whiteness played a role in their success — since being white is the most powerful affirmative action this country relies on after all. Instead, in these moments we get mostly self-aggrandizing pseudo-reflections on how amazing it is to be recognized for one’s work. And of course, it is amazing, and I do not mean to begrudge these artists their tremendous achievements. I just wonder, particularly now as we navigate a period of consolidated power among organized white supremacists, isn’t it time to name our complicity in this structure? Or do we just re-post articles claiming that “Diversity Took Center Stage at the Emmys”?

Amazing, brilliant people of color were honored last night at the Emmys. Of course they were and should have been. That should go without saying but we are so far from a world in which people of color can expect anything close to resembling equity when it comes to opportunity, recognition or even basic health and survival. Meanwhile, so many white people were honored as we always are. I am not saying — though I am sure many will accuse me of this — that white people should not win awards or be recognized and celebrated. Instead, I am saying, shouldn’t we complicate the narratives and centrality of our white heroes and the ease with which they/we make their way into our homes, our minds, and our hearts?

No doubt the small platform that I have, the value of my labor and my words, are the product of my whiteness first and foremost. My white skin has given me not only the access to the education, professional opportunities and validation that I have experienced but also the belief, instilled in me from such a young age, that all of this was possible.

I have been thinking lately about how many white lawyers are celebrated as heroes of civil rights struggles. Indeed, I was particularly struck a few years ago reading a passage in a book about the fight against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), praising a particular white federal judge who had played a role in mentoring various lawyers and judges involved in the fight for marriage equality. This same judge, cast as a hero in this one story, I knew, had also spoken some of the most anti-Black words to a Black defendant during a plea colloquy that I have ever read and return to with some regularity as a reminder of the anti-Blackness inherent in our legal system. The judge said to a young man she was sentencing to a lengthy prison term:

“I have grappled for years, and particularly for the last four years…with the fate of young men like you…Hypermasculinized, enamored of guns, violent, thuggish. Almost all of you had terrible upbringings as a result of the awful decisions made by your parents, starting with the decision, which really wasn’t ever much of a decision in the first place but more like an afterthought, to have you at all when they were incapable or unwilling to take care of you.”

One story’s hero, is another story’s anti-hero. This judge who very likely was a figure for good in a story about marriage equality, unabashedly told a young Black person facing prison time from her position of nearly unmatched power that he should never have existed at all.

I will never forget these words, not because I feel superior to the Judge who spoke them, but because they are a reminder to me to stay ever-vigilant about the intoxication of power so easily accessed by white people.

We are all the flawed product of our flawed society and system. Our task, as white people, I believe, is to be relentless in our evaluation of white supremacy’s hold over us and expose it at every turn.

I return to the W.H. Auden poem that has served as my guide, introduced to me first by Vijay Prashad at the Riverside Church in Harlem and again last week by Mariame Kaba on Twitter:

“All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.”

One of the many lies of white supremacy is that we are always deserving of our power, our good fortune, our status as celebrated hero. The truth is, we might be, but just as often, we stumbled into our power, are propped up into it, because it serves a larger purpose in the process of maintaining white supremacy. That does not make us bad, I don’t think, it just makes us beneficiaries of unending gifts that we do not deserve.

So, to my fellow white people, a reminder that our heroes are racist too. Let us hold ourselves accountable to the full complexity of the people we revere and lift up. And still, don’t forget to love one another. Because the closing line of Auden’s poem is searing in its prescience.

Too many lives are lost because we perpetuate the lies of white supremacy without accounting for our complicity within it. To love deeply, is to expose those lies and love still and love harder.

Lawyer, dad, queer, pats fan

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