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Artpod on race and "good white people"

Photo courtesy of Brit Bennett

More than a million people know how Brit Bennett feels about being black in nice little liberal enclaves of progressive white people.

Basically, confused. And grateful. And more than a little tired.

“Most of my white friends have responded to recent events [in Ferguson and New York] with empathy or outrage. Some have joined protests. Others have posted Criming While White stories, a hashtag that has been criticized for detracting from Black voices. Look at me, the hashtag screams, I know that I am privileged. I am a good white person. Join me and remind others that you are a good white person too.

Over the past two weeks, I've seen good white people congratulate themselves for deleting racist friends or debating family members or performing small acts of kindness to black people. Sometimes I think I'd prefer racist trolling to this grade of self-aggrandizement. A racist troll is easy to dismiss. He does not think decency is enough. Sometimes I think good white people expect to be rewarded for their decency. We are not like those other white people. See how enlightened and aware we are? See how we are good?

Over the past two weeks, I have fluctuated between anger and grief. I feel surrounded by black death. What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.”

Bennett’s piece for Jezebel, I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People, went viral after it was published last month. Some 53,000 people have liked it on Facebook. And in a win for the entire concept of comments sections in general, many of the 3,300 responses to the article are insightful, deeply personal takes on racial frustration and confusion.

Bennett received her MFA from the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writer's Program, where she's now a post graduate fellow working on her first novel. When she spoke with Michigan Radio in December, she said the whole thing has been surreal.

“I think I’m just really overwhelmed and completely shocked, to be honest. I wrote the piece and thought it was something a few of my friends would share on Facebook. A lot of people told me that the piece made them uncomfortable, challenged them, but in sort of a good way."

“And a lot of other people told me that I was able to sort of speak to some of the things they’d been thinking and feeling in the wake of Ferguson and all the stuff going on in the country right now.”

Q: So many of the responses, especially on Jezebel, are from white people who recognize themselves in the piece and feel uncomfortable. And then they ask you, "What should I do? How do I be a good good white person?"

“I did receive a few tweets and even some messages on my Tumblr who were speaking to that effect. Some really sweet people who were just asking, ‘Well, what, then what should we be doing?’

“And I want to just first say, I don’t have all the answers."

“I think of this essay as my trying to piece through all my own thoughts about this. I think of this essay even as more of a question than arriving at some solution."

“But I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an ally. That they’re going to places where groups they’re an ally for cannot necessarily go…People who are able to march, that’s great. But also people who are able to shout down people in their family that are being racist or able to go into other spaces I don’t have access to."

“So I guess as far as how can people avoid being this good white person? To me, that person I’m sort of criticizing, I guess, I would say are people who feel the need to applaud themselves for what they’re doing."

“I don’t want people to be sort of paralyzed and feel like they can’t have these conversations. And that’s a response I got from one of my white friends, actually the first person I sent the essay to: well, what should we do? There’s sort of been this meme about silence is violence, so people don’t want to not say anything."

“But I guess to me, where is it coming from? Are you using your privilege in a way that’s helpful to a group, or are you using your voice to help make yourself seem better?"

Q: In the essay you mention the #CrimingWhileWhite [hashtag on Twitter, which was a response from white people to the shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers, in which white people shared their experiences of getting away with minor crimes. 

But I see on your Tumblr that it’s also like, white people, please don’t be the one that gets the loudspeaker, because this is not your cross to bear.

“I think that the criming-while-white hashtag was interesting because it was criticized as something that speaks around black people to other white people.

And in that respect, I don’t think there’s a problem with it.

I don’t think it’s something that’s meant for me. I already know this, I know privilege exists. I know I don’t have certain types of privilege.

For example in Michigan, it’s very cold in Michigan, but I never walk into stores with my hands in my pockets. Just because if I do, people might think I’m trying to steal something.

Other people might not think of that. That’s sort of what a privilege is by definition. So I think so far as it’s an education tool for other white folks, that’s great.

But I also think I agree with some of the way that it co-opts the conversation a bit in a way that not completely helpful

I don’t want to come across as someone who’s stridently against white people contributing to this conversation or advancing it.

I think it’s all really important. I know my white friends talk to me about race. I want them to talk to their other white friends about race, because I think that’s more important than them talking to me.” 

Hear more from Bennett about her essay and the responses on this episode of Artpod. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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