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Recognizing and Challenging White Ego: A Response to a City Under Siege

December 1st, 2020

By Isabella Steinhauer

Artwork by Maddy Meredith

The following article is a response to the article ‘A City Under Siege’ by Rachel Paddock, which discusses the initial days of protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota following the murder of George Floyd. Rachel, who is a young white woman from the Minneapolis area, centers her attention on the more violent side and actors of the protests. There is no clearly outlined argument to this piece other than that she simply “does not understand” why the murder of George Floyd triggered such events. Her argument lays out a common perspective of many white Americans. Although Rachel does not explicitly denounce the Black Lives Matter Movement, her language usage, rhetoric, and lack of effort to empathize and discern the bigger picture of the situation weaves a condescending tone throughout her article. This ultimately perpetuates problematic and harmful thought patterns and stereotypes that white people and other non-black people often hold towards the Black community. 

There are a multitude of reasons that we as a society continue to see such narratives and are not able to discern what is harmful and what is not. As a country, we’ve never genuinely confronted our history. Our educational system that has always been grounded in whiteness, paints the history of this nation in a deceptively positive light, meaning that we, as Americans, rarely have to confront hard truths within our own individual networks and communities unless we are actively marginalized by the state. Exacerbating things further, the media continues to play an insidious and yet at the same time blatant role in shaping the public discourse of race relations in the US. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be fair to characterize Rachel as a blatant racist or bigot or “cancel” her by any means. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t view her words as entirely innocent and certainly not innocuous. Her article embodies the larger issue of the collective white ego in America and most of the Western world. This white ego is the voice inside our heads telling us to insert ourselves and our opinions into situations that ultimately do not affect us as they affect Black people and other people of color. Our white ego complex is what causes us to act defensively without comprehensively empathizing or analyzing the full scope of the circumstances and, most importantly, our position within them. 

If we want to see real change and equity in this country, we must make conscious efforts every single day to kill our white egos. This starts with confronting our history as a nation and our culpability as white people in preventing actualized liberty, justice, and freedom for all. We must start to give up our privileges by taking a seat, and really begin listening, internalizing, and following Black voices. As white people, we do not feel the repercussions of the anti-Black structural violence that is woven into every aspect of the American system from healthcare, to education, housing, food access, political representation, voter disenfranchisement and suppression, and police brutality. Therefore, it is not our place or our right to insert ourselves into these conversations unless our actions are anti-racist and in alliance with the Black community to fight the against the policies and ideas that maintain racial inequalities in our country. Overall, no matter how “woke” you think you are, if you are centering the narrative around yourself and your whiteness, and are not thinking longer and harder before you decide to speak, you could be harming Black lives. If you do not hold yourself and others around you accountable for your actions or inactions, you could be harming Black lives. 

 

If you are at all confused or unsure about what I mean when I mention Anti-Racism, please read this extract from Ibram X. Kendi’s book ‘How to Be an Anti-Racist’. I don’t want to diminish the potency of his definitions by paraphrasing the full scope of racism and anti-racism. 

 

With that said, I want to pose a series of questions to Rachel directly:

What is the purpose of this article? What is the purpose of publishing it? What are you looking to achieve or add to the conversation? In your preface you state that you are “in no way trying to minimize what happened or undermine any part of the cause.” In stating this, you are clearly aware that your article would have the effect of minimizing the Black Lives Matter movement, even harm it, but you chose to write this anyway. Why? You note that you are a white woman who “knows and understands that you can never fully understand.” With this self acknowledgment, have you considered the weight that your voice holds as a white woman compared to that of a Black person? Did you reflect on what voices you absorbed before writing this? What voices you may have neglected? Does your perspective provide opportunity for actionable efforts to be made for the progress of the anti-racism movement in America? Lastly, would you read this article out loud, face to face, to a Black person?

 

When I present these questions to Rachel, I’m also presenting them to the entire Inflections team, myself included, as well as any white person that wants to act in alliance to advance the current Civil Rights/Black Lives Matter Movement (or any social justice issue pertaining to race). The white ego is conditioned into all us from having been born and raised in a society that intrinsically upholds whiteness. I am not exempt from having a white ego. I have written and rewritten how to approach this response multiple times. It has taken me so long because I’ve had to recognize and critically think through how my ego could be clouding the purpose of this response. I am no better than Rachel and she is no better than me. Nonetheless, that does not mean that the language and rhetoric used throughout her article should be looked over. There are a few things I think need to be called out in her article. 

 

Below is an annotation of various quotes and overall observations of themes throughout  the article. The purpose of this is to highlight various issues with word choice, tone, and repetitions so that we all can practice meticulously identifying and critiquing harmful language that may exist in what we read and what we write. 

 

Paragraph 1: 

“I am in no way trying to minimize what happened or undermine any part of the cause. This is a narrative from a white woman who knows and understands that I can never fully understand.” 

This really epitomizes white privilege and ego and sets the tone for the article (well, the title really sets the tone but I’ll get to that later). As a reader, the first thought I had was “This must mean that the article will probably minimize BLM.” While there may have been good intentions here, it actually displays Rachel recognizing that her article could have the effect of minimizing and undermining parts of BLM but choosing to write the article anyway; this in turn negates any good intentions by prioritizing privilege over the harm it may cause others. 

 

Paragraph 2: 

“What has occurred in the past few weeks has been the result of decades of buildup like a pimple on your face building up until finally the white top shows up one day, and you know it is ready to pop.”

I don’t know anyone that likes pimples. Beyond simply not liking them, I’d even say people loathe them. Pimples are viewed as unwelcome, disgusting and ugly nuisances that we don’t want to have or deal with. Whether you meant this comment innocently or not, you compared the Black Lives Matter Movement, the largest civil rights movement in history, to a pimple. Words hold weight, and this analogy is beyond offensive. Would you look a Black man or woman in the eye and tell them that their experience amounts to a pimple that needs to be popped? If no, it’s your white ego and you need to reflect on why you thought this was an appropriate comparison to draw. Think before you speak. 

 

“The police officers involved felt threatened by his demeanor and proceeded to use an old school police method of incapacitating violent suspects by putting his knee on the man’s neck.”

This really comes off as validating and the police response. Even though George Floyd nor his crime were violent by any means, the police felt threatened so he put his knee on his neck and suffocated Floyd until he died. It was an old school police method though. Rhetoric matters and this is very apologist to a murderer who just so happens to wear a badge. 

 

Paragraph 3: 

“At first I thought these protests would last a few days and disperse like other protests have in the past.” 

This sentence also represents white ego. You thought you were only going to have to be uncomfortable for a few days and then we could all go back to the normal where police can kill Black people whenever they please without repercussion. 

 

Paragraph 4-6:   

The use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ when describing rioters, looters, and protesters - as well as using these three terms interchangeably. 

Using they and them creates an “us vs them” perspective. They/them not being clearly identified can only be assumed to be Black people. I/we/us (non-Black people) are not the ones on the TV but they (Black) are the ones causing damage and harming their community. You only confirm this when you say “The irony of it: most of the people that live in the community that was devastated are black.” It all comes off as extremely condescending. 

 

I get various forms of protesting can be difficult to understand, especially the ones that can be more violent. But is there really any correct way of protesting? Colin Kaepernick essentially sacrificed his career taking a knee to protest this exact issue because people didn’t want to deal with it. Even after all that has happened with various forms of city wide street protesting, the NBA took a peaceful strike after the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers in Kenosha, WI and people still criticized that form of protest. The fact of the matter is, there is no ‘“right” way to protest. Change is uncomfortable, and historically most change has been brought about by more overt and sometimes violent forms of protesting. 

 

When you use rioting, looting, and protesting interchangeably, you are placing a single identity on the entire BLM, which isn’t fair. The majority of protests have been peaceful, and people are literally risking their lives with COVID to advocate for a more just America. If you really support the movement like you said you do, I hope you have or will take time to get out there in the streets too. 

Overall Observations of the Article: 

Throughout the article, statements like “I don’t understand”,  “I struggle to understand”, or “I’m trying to understand” crop up multiple times. It’s okay to not understand some things. There is a lot of reckoning and a lot of changes that we must confront every day and we cannot expect ourselves to understand it all overnight. Not understanding something can even be a good thing because it means we can identify what information we need to seek out and learn more about. While it is unfortunate that most white people do not know about the detriments of structural and institutional racism to Black lives, at least people are acknowledging that they must learn and do more now. 

However, the issue of using “I don’t understand” so much throughout a piece of writing is harmful because it becomes central and takes away from the larger issues that need to be discussed. For other white people that don’t understand the current situation, reading repeated statements in a published article confirms the notion that not understanding is normal and is therefore okay. It normalizes and maintains willful ignorance of racism and its violent effects on Black people’s lives every day. In turn, this stunts the crucial discourse needed instead of progressing the conversation. 

After I finished the article, the first thought I had was what a teacher or professor would think about an essay that used the phrase “I don’t understand” so many times. It would be unacceptable and undisputedly, you would fail. So I ask, why is it okay that when Black lives are on table, it is thought to be acceptable to publish a piece of writing without research and thoughtful consideration? Why, with endless books and essays on the history of African Americans, anti-Blackness, white supremacy, human rights abuses, police brutality, policy, and protesting, is it okay?