White guilt? No, it's about bigger things

  • Article by: LISA ALBRECHT
  • Updated: April 13, 2011 - 8:41 PM

Rosa Parks weeps during funeral services for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta, April 9, 1968. King was assassinated 40 years ago, April 4, 1968. Parks refusal to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955 triggered a wave of protests that became known as the modern day civil rights movement.

Photo: Don Hogan Charles, Associated Press - Nyt

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Counterpoint

I don't laugh when I think about racism, unlike Katherine Kersten ("Always room in the budget for white guilt," April 10).

As a white person, it's in my interest to work to eliminate racism and white supremacy. Why?

I believe that all people deserve the right to live fully, so that we all reach our highest potential as human beings. Racism does not allow this.

I don't work for racial justice to patronize or "help" people of color. I do it to help myself and other white people who care.

I can't reach my fullest potential as a human being if I demean people of color or perpetuate harmful stereotypes about any group. I've spent years trying to understand racism, white supremacy and white privilege. It's critical to learn, and then to stand up and speak out.

Both people of color and white people must do this. If we don't, the institutions that shape civil society -- schools, governments, places of worship, courts -- will continue to perpetuate the huge disparities that define life for so many people of color.

I encourage everyone to learn about Minnesota's race disparities by visiting the websites of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project and Minnesota Minority Education Partnership.

To understand racism, I had to learn that it lives as a systemic force. White supremacy is historically rooted in the birth of our country.

The United States was built by slaves and poor immigrants from Asia and Central and South America. Our genocidal policies nearly eradicated the indigenous peoples of this continent.

As white people, this is our legacy, whether we like it or not. None of us today are responsible for this history. We happened to be born white. This is not about shaming or blaming us.

Our schools have not taught us this real history. Most teacher education programs don't prepare K-12 teachers (most of whom are white) how to teach this history.

"Multicultural" texts honor the special stars, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, without addressing racism, privilege or power.

Today, the United States is more segregated than when Brown vs. Board of Education passed in 1954. We white people can live our entire lives without having genuine relationships with people of color.

Many white students at the University of Minnesota, even if they grew up in close-in suburbs, still don't know any people of color. It becomes easy for us whites to rely on stereotypes we see in the media.

Regularly, white teachers teach down to black and brown children; we assume they have behavioral problems and come from "bad" neighborhoods. These children fulfill our prophecies when they stop believing in themselves.

Nightly news feeds us a steady diet of inner city violence as "normal." Suburban and rural violence are treated as exceptional, even though data tell us that drug use is higher in white suburbs than in communities of color.

Our legal system continues to warehouse more and more people of color in prison. We spend more money on prisons than on education.

Over the last three years, I've had the honor to be a part of a wonderful multiracial group that planned the 12th Annual White Privilege Conference. This week, more than 2,200 people from 39 states came here to teach and learn about how to work for racial justice -- K-12 teachers, college professors, high school and college students, social workers, program administrators, consultants and people from the corporate world.

The dialogues were often difficult. Many of us white people do not want to face racism. We look away and avoid conflict. Understanding how we benefit from being white in a systemically racist nation is hard for us to face. This is what white privilege is all about.

Data from the 12 years of these gatherings tell us that nearly half of conference attendees return. Approximately 30 percent are people of color who connect across racial barriers that separate them from one another. Many are generous and continue to help us white people find our way.

I believe in justice for all. I want more white folks to stand up and work for racial justice. This is not a liberal or conservative issue -- it's about our humanity.

Lisa Albrecht is Morse-Minnesota Alumni Distinguished Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, where she founded an undergraduate minor in social justice. She recently cochaired the White Privilege Conference.

Note: Photo is of Rosa Parks at the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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