Minimizing, sanitizing, or rejecting the existence of racism doesn’t make it vanish.
April 28, 2023
Let’s not mince words. The attacks on critical race theory are attempts to deny the American origin story: a century of slavery, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and legalized discrimination.
Despite these facts, we insist that America is the land of opportunity for anyone who works hard enough, while ignoring the reality of inherited wealth, stolen lands, and implicit bias. Poverty has been part of our nation since its inception. And it has proven to be most pervasive, persistent, and pernicious for people of color, thanks to racism in its myriad forms.
If poverty has been with us since the beginning, so has the myth of the American dream. The effects are clear. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) still contend with glaring disparities in wealth, reduced life expectancy, under-resourced education, and overrepresentation in the criminal legal system.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the truth has become debatable. And the more vocal we are in calling out hypocrisy, the stronger the resistance.
White fear is why the campaign against critical race theory is so widespread. The backlash comes from people who believe in preserving white supremacy at any cost. They feel threatened by the browning of the United States — and validated by a former president who gleefully used racist language while urging citizens to follow his example.
For the record, critical race theory doesn’t villainize white people. It’s a framework for legal analysis that explains how American racism has shaped public policy. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual prejudice but embedded in systems and policies.
Opponents to our work claim it’s being taught in K-12 schools. It’s not. They claim it’s about convincing white people they are innately racist and should feel guilty for their ancestors’ transgressions. It’s not. And through verbal sleight of hand, they have misappropriated and weaponized the term to describe ideas they find objectionable, such as white privilege, systemic inequality, and inherent bias.
As our country grapples with a crisis of morality, education remains a battleground for the values of the next generation. The classroom is about teaching knowledge and forging future leaders. Students who don’t understand institutional racism and white supremacy won’t question the status quo when they become voters. Or at least that’s the goal of the people trying to rewrite history and reverse progress.
Minimizing, sanitizing, or rejecting the existence of racism doesn’t make it vanish. It actually reinforces it. Because racism is woven tightly into the fabric of our nation, no one is immune from its impact. We either benefit from the privileges it bestows, or wrestle with the disadvantages and inequities it creates.
There’s no room for white fragility in the fight for racial justice. Yet within our ranks are white people with a profound discomfort around having honest conversations about our country’s legacy and continued racial inequity, injustice, and violence. How does this play out in the office? Employees of color may find it hard to speak to white colleagues about white privilege and supremacy. The white person may become defensive, and the person of color may feel forced to appease them because of white dominant culture.
The extra burdens placed on women and BIPOC leaders are emotionally taxing. As a Black female CEO at a national nonprofit, I know this firsthand. When someone challenges a decision of mine, I wonder if the close scrutiny is a racial or gender microaggression, or both because I hold two marginalized identities. Any discomfort felt by white leaders in addressing inequity at work pales in comparison to what leaders of color endure in every aspect of life.
To advance more equitable laws and policies, white people working at the intersection of race and poverty need to be aware and act in ways that always account for their power and privilege. Internal equity work, within ourselves and our organizations, is crucial for real change in the communities we serve.
The divisive dialogue around race reflects a deep reluctance to confront racism. Author Layla Saad cautions against the belief that “white supremacy is … only upheld by a fringe group of white people.” It’s actually upheld by us all. In her best-selling book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor, Saad asks readers to unpack their bias and gives white people tools to stop inflicting damage on people of color.
Make no mistake: Among our allies in this fight, even white progressives with the best intentions often harm people of color. That’s why advocates for racial justice must recognize and reckon with racism at all levels — individual, institutional, systemic, and structural.
Remember, we can’t fix what we don’t acknowledge. Ending racism — and living up to our American ideals — requires learning and growing well beyond our comfort zone. Otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat the errors of the past.
Hear more insights from Audra Wilson at Rewriting History, Reversing Progress on Thursday, May 4, at 10 a.m. ET. The upcoming panel discussion is part of the event series, Civil Rights at a Crossroads.