Moving Past the Good White People Narrative

This post is a response to “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People” by Bennett and Chapter 3: “The Eye of the Beholder” of Revealing the Invisible by Sherry Marx.  I happened to read this article and this book chapter in the same day and couldn’t believe how many parallels there were between the two!  Both discuss the good white people narrative and the ways White people distance themselves from the construct of racism.

In her article, Bennett describes “good white people” as those who responded to the Darren Wilson non-indictment with empathy or outrage, joined protests, deleted racist Facebook friends, or performed small acts of kindness to Black people.  She emphasizes the way the good white people congratulated themselves for these acts, concerned with “seeming good,” and sometimes expecting to be rewarded for their decency. This description instantly made me feel defensive of my own actions in response to the non-indictment, but as I read through Marx’s discussions with the preservice teachers I was able to better understand what Bennett meant.

Marx writes, “When I asked Elizabeth if she could be racist, she reeled back in horror, gasped, and exclaimed, ‘No. Absolutely not. I think racism is a bad thing… It’s not like I’m a bad person. I know I’m not a bad person. I know I have a good heart” (p. 85). Marx also explains how the young women easily shared stories about the racism of others, which seemed intended to highlight their own contrasting, nonracist qualities. The good white people narrative allows us to focus on our small acts of decency and our good intentions, making our own racism invisible.

Now, I want to make it clear that critiquing the good white people narrative does not mean it’s a bad thing to try to be a good white person (using your white privilege for good). The problem with the narrative is that when we see ourselves as good white people we obscure the ways that we are implicit in racism.

As Bennett puts it, “We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become. So we expect racism to appear, cartoonishly evil like a Disney villain.” However, if we understand racism “as a system that advantages Whites and disadvantages people of colour,” then we must recognize that “all members of society contribute to this reproduction of inequality simply by going about ‘business as usual’” (Marx, p. 91). This means that racism is not only evil acts done by evil people; rather, it is “an inevitable consequence of living in a racist society (Marx, p. 89).”

The good white people narrative allows us to equate racism with evil and hatred and to think of it as something that others do, rather than recognizing it in our own everyday thoughts and actions.

So how do we move past this problematic good white people narrative? These are just a few ways I have gathered from my readings. Please comment your thoughts and additional suggestions!!

  1. Accept your Whiteness.

We don’t have to feel guilty about being White. Marx writes about negative White identity, which many of her preservice teachers possessed because they associated Whiteness with shame and guilt for all the crimes of oppression Whites have committed against people of colour.  In order to move past this guilt/negative White identity, we must accept our Whiteness and define a view of Self as a racial being that does not depend on the perceived superiority of one racial group over another (Helms quoted by Marx, p. 90).

  1. Acknowledge your own racism.

To move to a positive White identity, we must acknowledge our own racism as an inevitable consequence of living in a racist society. You can’t work to be actively anti-racist unless you acknowledge and address your own racist tendencies.

  1. Stop focusing on your good intentions.

The problematic thing about the good white people narrative is that it excuses white people for racist thoughts/actions because they didn’t mean to do any harm, because it wasn’t their intention to hurt or offend anyone. As Bennett powerfully states, “What good are your good intentions if they kill us?” We need to examine our own actions and how they contribute to both equity and inequity – turning the gaze back to Self – despite the good intentions behind those actions.

To sum it all up:  If we can reject and move past the good white people narrative, we can acknowledge our own implicitness in racism, which is the first step in the direction of antiracist work.

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4 thoughts on “Moving Past the Good White People Narrative

  1. Pingback: Moving Towards Reconciliation: Why Planting Trees Is Not Enough | Raquel Bellefleur's Professional Portfolio

  2. Tim McIntyre (@timnuoa)

    We would all benefit from taking a more nuanced view of our own morality. We are all too stuck in a conception of morality that is based on a good person/bad person binary, where good people simply don’t do bad things. We of course understand ourselves as good people, which leads to us rationalizing away our misdeeds or participation in oppressive structures, which as Marx so wonderfully points out is an inevitable consequence of existing in an oppressive society. It’s a sort of a fragile moral ego in a sense.

    It’s particularly salient to these social issues of privilege and oppression, and I suspect it would help us in our personal relationships as well.

    Reply

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