Civility is complicity

White Americans often have a habit of assuming the best intentions. It’s a habit I still confront in myself.

We have faith in our institutions and in American exceptionalism. Especially the educated middle class and wealthier among us have been trained to be polite and respectful. We are predisposed to acquiesce.

I’ve struggled with this myself, both as someone who does believe a lot of important work can happen behind the scenes (calling in, rather than calling out) and as a journalist who is washed in the belief of “getting both sides.” This approach as it’s time to be effective. Issues of racial equity is not one of those times.

Because of my inclination to moderation, I’ve long been inspired by the more unforgiving teachings of Dr. King: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”

As I heard educator Kim Crayton say in an antiracist seminar she organized last week: “Whiteness is racist by design and can’t be trusted by default.” The balance between the Juneteenth and Fourth of July holidays is stark.

I certainly feel that; if I am not actively engaged in the work, I tend to be part of the problem. It’s why I had to audit my own level of responsiveness to today’s movement. And even then I am quite aware it isn’t enough. Vigilance is not a burden, it is a responsibility.

As Angela Davis said: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”

Inspired by the words, I wrote a piece cribbing the protest slogan White Silence is Violence and imploring white leaders to understand it is immoral for them to not act in this moment. In recent weeks, I’ve recognized there is another level to this though.

I’ve spoken to several leaders who understand their work to be best done behind the scenes, quietly. They see themselves, as I once had, being civil.

But that is a privilege, sitting comfortably in one’s position, never ruffling any feathers publicly, while I let others do the heavy lifting. One can pick a lot of the right sides of things, but do it quietly and politely — do it with civility. It is wrong. That quiet, polite behavior tacitly endorses racial inequality.

As Rutgers Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika put it in 2017: “It seems the whole project of whiteness was about exploitation” and either white leaders are working to reverse as best possible, or they’re contributing to its maintenance.

It forces Black people (and Brown, and other people of color) to do the work of defending their own community entirely. It’s a further oppression. In that sense, civility is complicity with racial injustice. White leaders must challenge themselves to do more.

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