November 15, 2021 Editor

Thoughts on: “White People Explain Racism to Me”

I’ve lived my whole life as a Black man in America, but every day I have to contend with some white person schooling me on what is and isn’t racist.

By Elie Mystal


November 15, 2021

photo above: (Fizkes / Shutterstock)

WN: We Whites, lacking the lifelong experiences described in the article highlighted below, just don’t begin to get it. Anymore than a victim of serious and violent crime knows no one but others similarly harmed really get it. The next best, which is barely the price of admission, is to try to feel empathetically . . .


Most days, I turn on my computer and ask the country if today is the day that white people will feel like holding a white man accountable for violence. Most days, the answer is “no.” We live in an age when the ubiquity of white violence is plain for all to see, thanks to the camera phone. When I’m not covering white domestic threats directed at people of color, I’m often covering state-sponsored terrorism against those same targets. When I’m not covering agents of the state behaving violently, I’m covering appellate and Supreme Court rulings, many of which will lead to more violence against people of color, women, or the LGBTQ community. And the whole time, I’m asking if anybody will be held accountable for the killings or beatings or the permissiveness that enables those killings and beatings.

What I do care about is justice. I care about fairness. I ask for white people to be held accountable, because too often they are not. Nearly every statistic we have points to the manifest unfairness in our justice system. White people are less likely to be charged with crime, and more likely to receive lighter sentences when they are convicted. They receive more favorable media coverage. It is almost impossible to convict a cop for anything.

These are not controversial points. They are backed up with mountains of statistical evidence. And yet, when I try to explain why we see these statistical disparities, when I try to draw the line between the known white bias in the system and the applied bias in an individual case, when I point out that racism is the self-evident reason for these obvious and statistically provable racial disparities, that is when white people, the very beneficiaries of this systemic injustice, get all up in their feelings and into my mentions. It’s not enough that I have to write about these constant eruptions of white violence against people who look like me every day; I also have to contend with white people who loudly and proudly feign ignorance of the very cause of this violence.

It’s the same people, and they always make the same damn arguments. They always put forward some “race neutral” reason for why the Black man ended up dead at the hands of a white cop. “The cop would have shot anybody who went for their gun,” they’ll say, ignoring the fact that the cop stopped and harassed a Black man walking down the street. “It looked like a gun,” they’ll say, concocting some good-faith reason for why a white man gunned down a 12-year-old with a toy. “He didn’t mean to kill him,” they’ll say, giving the benefit of the doubt to a man who choked another man to death on a sidewalk in broad daylight.

I wonder sometimes how these people stop themselves from walking into traffic, given their determination to walk around without seeing things. The shapes some white people will twist themselves into in order to justify white violence falls into the uncanny valley. Their justifications are grotesque.

And embarrassing. By Zeus, are their arguments embarrassing. This country was built on white supremacy—a Western slave empire that has never gone back and made restitution to the progeny of those it held in bondage. A war was fought in defense of American apartheid; amendments were written and then cast aside; untold thousands of humans have been lynched as a warning to those who would hold themselves out as equals; wealth has been bombed out of existence from the sky; drugs have been pushed; loans have been denied; and 400 years after people who look like me were first forcibly brought to these shores, I still can be executed on the street like a dog by a cop who mistakes my phone for a gun. But white people still walk this earth with the unmitigated gall to tell me what is and is not racist. How?

At 43, there is not a “race neutral” argument that a white person can make to me that I haven’t heard, and defeated, a hundred times before. A white person trying to explain racism to me—or to pretty much any Black person who has lived here long enough—sounds like a parakeet trying to explain astrophysics to Stephen Hawking. Everything they’ve thought about, I’ve already thought about. Everything they’re saying is just the repetition of something I read in the original German. Or Confederate. Or Jeffersonian.

I’m forced to conclude that most white people just don’t get the core concept of systemic racism. It means that racism is part of the system, you see. It’s happening all the time. It doesn’t turn itself off just because you forgot to think about it that day. Hope that helps.

God, I can feel my nacho-clogged arteries ready to burst every time I hear that stupid phrase. The suggestion that my race, that any person’s race, the very color of our skin, is something nobody else would notice if they didn’t bring it up fills me with so much rage I can taste the bitter rush of adrenaline on my tongue. My color is the first thing people notice about me—when they see me. It’s the first thing white children notice about me (“You must be [my children’s] dad.”) It’s the first thing some of y’all’s racist pets notice about me (don’t think Black people can’t tell when your dog barks at us and not the white person who just walked past). Playing a card suggests I could “not” play it if I didn’t want to. But that’s not how it works. It’s not a “card”; it’s just my face.

Memory is how I predicted that white people would try to let Kyle Rittenhouse get away with murder. It’s how I surmised that the judge in his case, Bruce Schroeder, would be biased toward the young white gunman. I didn’t need to know them; I needed only to remember everything I know about justice and white America, and then watch their individual actions. They told me everything I needed to know about them from their own mouths, in their own words.

Rittenhouse filmed himself two weeks before the protests in Kenosha ideating about buying a gun and shooting looters. He then acquired a gun (illegally), drove across state lines, lied about his qualifications as an EMT, and killed two people. I know him now. Schroeder made a series of pretrial decisions to help Rittenhouse’s case, then refused to make Rittenhouse comply with the terms of his bail. At trial, he’s continued to make decisions that favor Rittenhouse, in addition to yelling at the prosecution, refusing to let them put forward their best case, and literally making the courtroom clap for Rittenhouse’s expert witness, ostensibly because he was a veteran and it was Veterans Day. Schroeder told me everything I needed to know about him, even before his cell phone went off and played the Trump-rally theme song.

I’m talking about how I understand people based on their words and deeds. Assuming that all white people are “the same” would get me killed. If I am to survive, I have to be able to make judgments about each individual white person’s capabilities to kill me or harm me or help me, quickly and accurately, based on as much information as I can gather. I must be able to distinguish between the white guy who is coming at me because he hates something he heard me say on television from the white guy who is coming at me because he likes something he heard me say on television. I don’t hate white people—I don’t have the luxury of making a blanket, sweeping determination like that. I’m just a guy who can spot the white people who hate me coming a mile away. Two miles, if I’m paying attention.

Please click on: Whites Explaining (Badly) Racism

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.