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White People aren't stupid: Note to my white self

Acting in Faith  |  By James Mulholland, May 5, 2017

White silence is violence from a rally in Philadelphia

Photo: AFSC / Lucy Duncan

White people are not stupid.

I know you’ve been frustrated lately. You’ve encountered white people who can’t seem to understand the difference between racial prejudice and racism. You’ve had several white people call you racist for challenging their racism, as if that were possible. You spent a whole day going back and forth with a white woman who insisted she had been the victim of racism from people of color. Don’t be confused. These people are not stupid.

Stupidity is a lack of intelligence. Systemic racism is not the product of stupid people. The white businessmen who created slavery in America were cunning, smart. The white politicians who justified slavery did so intentionally. Voter suppression, redlining, segregation, the war on drugs and anti-immigrant policies are all creations of intelligent white people. Most white people are not stupid. They are ignorant.

Ignorance is the decision to ignore certain facts and realities. Slave traders and slave owners had to ignore the humanity of people of color in order to justify slavery. White politicians had to ignore injustices and inequities in order to justify inhumane laws. Those who argue with you about systemic racism will not be swayed by your facts, statistics and studies. It is not that they are too stupid to understand them. They have intentionally chosen to ignore them.

For someone who explains systemic racism to others, you still don’t seem to fully appreciate its origins. Systemic racism is a cleverly constructed system to perpetuate and justify the mistreatment and abuse of people of color. It took hundreds of years to create. The arguments and rationalizations you’re encountering are not the utterances of stupid people. They are the carefully crafted, time tested and well-honed defenses of racism.

This is so important for you to understand. You have been under the false impression that you can quickly and easily persuade ignorant white people of the reality of systemic racism and white privilege. They aren’t stupid. They know what you’re trying to do. They aren’t impressed by your arguments. They couldn't care less about your facts. It is these arguments and facts they have chosen to ignore.

I know you don’t want to accept this, but education alone will not end systemic racism. If the defenders of systemic racism were stupid, it would have collapsed long ago. Thinking of and labeling racist white people as unintelligent is a big mistake. In so doing, you seriously underestimate their capability to sustain the system. When they confuse the meaning of racism, they aren’t being stupid. 

So you need to stop arguing with them. You know within a few minutes whether someone is stupid, ignorant or uninformed. If they are stupid, they can’t understand the complexities of systemic racism. If they are ignorant, they have decided to ignore them. The only conversations worth having are with those who express a lack of understanding and a real curiosity about racism. Since you were once such a person, be patient with those people.

The stupid and the ignorant require a different approach. As with any societal behavior, systemic racism will only end when the costs outweigh the benefits. One of those costs must be shame. The decrease in smoking in America involved changing laws and educating people about its dangers, but its decline was primarily driven by a shift in public opinion. When smoking began to be seen as a nasty habit, people began to abandon it.

This is equally true in confronting systemic racism. The facts about systemic racism are no more disputable than those around the ills of smoking. The problem is not with the facts, but with the unwillingness of many white people to abandon this nasty habit. Until white people become ashamed of systemic racism, societal change will not come.

So stop debating the reality of racism with the ignorant.

Instead, challenge the cruelty behind their rhetoric. When white people justify police brutality, ask how they can be so heartless when fathers and sons are murdered. When they support anti-immigrant or refugee laws, ask how they can be so cruel when families are torn apart or left in squalor. When they defend laws and policies that discriminate, ask how they can be so unfair. When they express racist sentiments, ask how they can be so ugly.

When systemic racism is seen as heartless, cruel, unfair and ugly by our society, most white people will abandon its defense.

After all, they aren’t stupid.

This piece was oriignally published at James' blog, Note to my White Self.

About the Author

James Mulholland is a fifty-six year old privileged white man with a nine year old black daughter named Ella.  He says that being Ella’s father has forced him to confront the privilege and racism within himself, his family and society. He spent twenty five years as a pastor in urban Methodist and Quaker congregations before realizing he had become a happy atheist.  After leaving the ministry, he spent about ten years as a community organizer in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

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