“Good White People” and the Failure of Our Imaginations

As a white woman from the South who writes novels that attempt to debunk some of the falsehoods of white, Southern nostalgia, I’ve spent years trying to educate myself on the complex legacy of racism in this country. *** In doing so, I have been faced with my own delusions, and the delusions so many of us white people maintain in order to preserve the idealization of our “goodness.”

As our country grapples with how to answer the clear and present call for systemic change in order to bring about racial justice, I recognize the desire of “good white people” to cling to the belief that we, ourselves, are not racist; that, indeed, are hearts are full of only love. But our “goodness” is not the issue at hand. Instead, we are being asked to acknowledge systems of racial inequity that are rooted in our country’s very founding and, though these systems have morphed and changed over the last 400 years, continue to play out today. To do so, we must recognize that we have been miseducated about the violence of our history, and we must resist our inclination to preserve our ignorance.

It was not until I was 34 years old that I learned the extent of our country’s history of lynching, despite the fact that I graduated from the “best” high school in Atlanta. This brutal history is too often hidden from curriculums. It certainly was in the predominantly white, private schools I attended, not because the history is hard to access (it is not), but presumably because we “good white people” didn’t want to deal with it. My own white, Southern grandmother, who I deeply admire for having spoken out early against racism, asked her relatives not to share stories with her of racial injustice perpetuated by her dirt-poor family during the Depression. She wanted to be shielded from knowing her family’s full history, because she intuited that surely it included violence against blacks.

I understand my grandmother’s impulse, but today we are being called upon to stop shielding ourselves from history. And in doing so, we are being asked to consider how we white people have collectively benefited (materially, though not spiritually) from systemic racism, including our political and corporate power, our generational accumulation of wealth, our healthcare outcomes, the schools we attend, the neighborhoods we live in, the way we are policed, and so on.

Whether implicitly or explicitly, most white people in this country are conditioned to believe in the primacy and superiority of white culture. It’s a toxic and in some cases subtle conditioning, and one that we must try to unlearn.

For me, attempting to unlearn my racist conditioning has meant abandoning “truisms” of white culture that aren’t actually true. For instance, that our country provides an even playing field, despite the fact that for centuries, Black people were enslaved and then brutally oppressed for nearly another 100 years by Jim Crow laws in the South, and discriminatory practices in the rest of the country. And then, when explicitly racist laws were (mostly) dismantled, and Federal voting protections put into place, systemic racism continued in more veiled forms, “hiding elsewhere,” as one of the ministers at my church says—in home mortgage policies, in how schools are funded, in the criminal [in]justice system…

Lately, I’ve been sitting with the fact that our country’s first president wore false teeth made not of wood, as legend has it, but rather from a collection of materials that included the pulled teeth of enslaved people. When I first heard this correction, I thought surely it wasn’t true, probably because my white imagination had been trained to doubt the unimaginable indignities and sufferings heaped upon Black people over the centuries.

We are now being asked to recognize the extreme limits of our imaginations. We are being asked to let go of our perpetual equivocations, our “every country has bigotry” response that so often flies out of our mouths when we hear examples of racial prejudice in our country. Once, while I was a resident at an arts colony, a Black artist gave a presentation on photographs she had taken at the Elmina Castle in Ghana, a fortress where abducted African people were warehoused before being forced onto slave ships. The white audience’s response? They wanted to talk about the existence of current-day slavery. They wanted to divert the subject away from the pain of our country’s history of slavery and focus instead on something—anything—else.

As “good white people,” and perhaps especially those of us who are proud of, say, not having voted for Trump, our impulse is to justify, to explain that while we are sure we’ve acted in a prejudiced manner at some point in our lives, we aren’t racist. That we love everybody. That we just wish everyone could get along. But we live and breathe within a racist system. We are not immune to the world around us. We do not wear space helmets as we glide through life, breathing only the air of our transcendental purity.

So how do we resist our inclinations? We can, as Austin Channing Brown urges, choose to care more about the safety of black people than we do about our own desire to avoid feeling uncomfortable. We can choose to check our defenses, our tendency to bring up present distractions whenever the subject of systemic racism comes up. How many potentially fruitful conversations about the lived experiences of black people in this country have been sidelined by a white person arguing heatedly, instead, over semantics, having, say, a lengthy argument over whether or not the term “racist” or “bigoted” is correct?

We are being asked to sit with the discomfort this moment invokes. We are being asked to feel the pain of others. We want to deny, or, to “fix things,” quickly. We rush to post videos on Instagram of cops and protesters dancing, hugging, sharing water. Our imaginations fail to recognize that these “feel good” videos do nothing to change systems that fail black people again and again. We want to see the heartwarming clips, so that we may return to the happy fantasy that we are good, that it is simply a case of “bad apples” on each side who are making things so hard: a few bad cops. A few bad protesters.

Our desire to feel better often causes us to turn away from the pain, and return to the illusion that everything is okay. But everything is not okay. We need to feel the discomfort of that truth. And then we need to transfer our discomfort into action, and join the legions of those who are currently working for systemic change, and those saints who came before us. 


***Footnote: I would not be able to think about systemic racism with any cogency without the scholarship and brilliance of Black writers. Twenty-two years ago, I took a literature class in college in which we read Their Eyes Were Watching God, Passing, Native Son, Beloved, and Jazz. These novels changed the way I saw the world, and changed the books I chose to read going forward. (Previously, I had mostly read works by western, male writers in literature classes.) During this current season, I’ve been reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. And I am just starting James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Also, a friend recently sent me a clip of Dr. Robin DiAngelo (who is white), speaking on the themes of her book, White Fragility. To say that Dr. DiAngelo’s conclusions resonate is a vast understatement.