White Lies

What if we stopped telling white lies?

You know, the “little” lies that are supposed to be ok to tell because they are meant to soften the world, to be polite, to protect people’s feelings: like when someone asks you to go to the movies but you really don’t want to go with them so you say you are busy when you are not.

Little white lies don’t hurt anyone, right? They are light, polite, and…. white.

But, what if they are hurting someone, what if they keep us from a truth that we need to face—what if it is time for our white lies to come out from their shadows and fess up to what’s really going on.

A little etymological research will tell you that this telling “little” turn of phrase, “white lies,” is a product of Western culture in the mid eighteenth century—an idiomatic snapshot of the entrenched mentalities of the day. White and black stood in opposition—iconic representations of good and bad respectively. And “white lies” were an endearing practice of the well-healed. They were a way to maintain polite society, prevent undue emotional injury, and they, of course, intended no harm. These little white lies particularly intended no harm to the “Fortune, Interest, or Reputation” of others and allowed the white liar to “tell wonderful stories.”

At the same time this turn of phrase was born of white gentility in the 1700s in Britain, slave ships were continuing their repetitive way across the Middle Passage in the Atlantic. Thousands of trips crossed the ocean and lasted excruciating months to transport kidnapped and enslaved African people to the Americas and the Caribbean. These voyages were made in order for these enslaved people to become the brutalized backbone of economies that would generate white wealth.

This sinister aspiration for success and prosperity would never have worked if whites had not bought the lies—white is good and black is bad. White is civilized, black is savage. Whites are trustworthy, blacks are not to be trusted. Whites make us safe, blacks are to be feared.

And the soul-killing lies seeped in more and more deeply. And a wide swath of “civilized society” accepted the lie that white wealth being generated by the ingenuity of the white world and the blood and sweat of enslaved black bodies was morally sound.

Maybe white lies aren’t so little after all. And they are anything but harmless.

This white practice of feeding on sweet little lies that “never hurt anybody” continues to annihilate the souls of white people and white cultures—and we continue our oppressive moral arithmetic that tries to tell us everything is fair and just and right with the world for those who “know how to act.”

What if we stopped with the white lies?

What if we started to pay more attention to the veracity of our assumptions and presumptions, of our mentalities and fatalities?

What if we admitted that these little white lies have added up over the generations—and they have tallied up a horrible cost, a human toll that equals the death count of the worst wars human society has known.

And what if we accepted that these lies eat away at every one of us, diminishing our capacities to enjoy a life-giving existence and to live in robust communities.

Racism and privilege are a debilitating illness in this country. We must stop treating the symptoms by trying to mask them. We must go to the root causes. We must tell the truth about our white lies.

These white lies, in many cases, are an accepted part of our American vernacular around race. These aren’t the sentiments of hardened white supremists. These are the lies that many well-intentioned whites tell each other and the world. And they often come coupled with an unconscious resistance to look very far beneath the surface. For those of us white people who truly desire healing for the wounds of race in America, it’s time to look at our lies and the truth that needs to be told.

White Lie #1: People of color need to stop playing the race card for America to get beyond race.

There is no such thing as the “race card.” Race is not a card, racism is not a game. It is a system of privilege based on whiteness that has shaped everything in American society from our education system to our religious traditions to our justice systems, our neighborhoods, our gut reactions, and our intimate relationships. Saying race is a card is like saying air is a vitamin. Air is everywhere and we don’t choose to breathe it. Race is everywhere, and we don’t choose whether to play “the card” or not.

White Lie #2: Being nice to black people means I am not a racist.

It might make you feel better to banter in the check out line with a person of color or smile at a person of color on the street, but these niceties do not mean that you do not have racialized biases and that you have not benefited from racism. Being actively racist, as in being a member of the Ku Klux Klan, is not the only way to be racist. The depth and stealthiness of racism in America will take more than polite smiles and chit-chat to combat. Thinking that just being nice is all we need in the country to heal the wounds of race is like saying you can just get a good night’s sleep to cure cancer. It’s not enough and the cancer will not go away without intentional and drastic measures that change the way you live. And even then, it may not be curable.

White Lie #3: America’s systems of justice and opportunity are colorblind and that is what makes them fair.

Aspiring to colorblindness in a country that generated most of its wealth and systems of ownership, merit, and access through racist practices and mentalities is a startling and disturbing kind of denial. I would even go so far as to call it a collective psychosis—it is not rational, it shows a profound loss of contact with reality. This collective psychosis makes us believe things that are not true.

Color has historically mattered a WHOLE lot in this country. To say that the best way to address how race has affected people of color is by not seeing color is certifiable madness. And this collective psychosis has turned the moral fiber of this country inside out–and the frayed fabric of our society is coming apart at the seams right now before our very eyes.

White Lie #4: White people who talk about white privilege are ashamed to be white.

If you have read the unabridged history of the European conquest of First Nation people and the slave trade, then how can we not find shameful things that white-dominated clutches of people have done. I am not ashamed that I was born the way I was—how could I be ashamed of something God intended for me to be. I love my family of origin and many things about the culture that helped to formed me. AND I am ashamed and horrified and deeply grieved by some of the practices, histories, habits, and mentalities of the culture that helped to form me.

Anyone coming of age needs to face the good, the bad, the assets, and the inadequacies of your inheritance in order to be a healthy adult. Acknowledging the ugliness of our heritage, along with embracing the beautiful things that we want to pass on to our children, is what makes the world a better place. I am not ashamed to be white, but I am also not willing to stunt my children’s capacity to live in the world as constructive members of society just because I am afraid to look at my shadows.

No culture is perfect. But, white culture has particularly had a lot of power to abuse over the generations even as this same culture has done some things that we can all agree are to the good.

White Lie #5: What am I supposed to do about racism? All I can do is be a good person and that should be enough.

This exasperation masks a lot of fear for “good” white people. Does this mean we have to give things up? Does this mean we have to feel worse about ourselves than we already do (as evidenced by things like massive amounts of elective plastic surgeries, pharmaceutically obsessed coping skills, chemical dependencies, divorce rates, and statistically documented high levels of unhappiness among middle-upper class whites)?

Contrary to how many white people present themselves as confident and in charge, many suffer from a deep sense of self-loathing and discomfort in their own skin. I believe it is the auto-immune disorder of whiteness—we don’t deal with our demons and they begin to eat away at our sense of ourselves and our ability to connect with others, and even with Our Creator. To ward off more guilt, more bad feelings, white people assume the posture of the victim, beaten up by all the stress of being told we’re bad people.

I believe with everything I have that if white people can begin to see racism as a disease that has infected our souls, we may finally find the freedom we need to truly be well and to give others the space they need to be well, too.

White Lie #6: Anti-racism is just liberal politics.

Race is not about politics. Anti-racism is not political correctness. Anti-racism is not a stance one has on issues. Anti-racism is about human beings—it is about freedom, it is about dignity, it is about justice. But mostly it is about living in a world that does not settle for the brutality of systems that dehumanize and commodify anyone.

There will always be hate and hateful people in this world, but there do not have to be systems built on the scaffolding of racialized disadvantage and bias. That is not politics, that is a building the sturdiest architecture for human life that we possibly can.

The subtly of racism today does not make it any less tyrannous. Anti-racism is about power disentangled from greed and hatred, from lies and disease. This country is never going to be robust until we heal ourselves from racism.

White Lie #7: Being afraid of black people is justified OR my secret fears of black people are not a problem because I don’t let them affect me.

Collective white fears of black and brown “others” has been in our ethnic DNA for centuries. It has helped to fuel everything from conquest to mass incarceration. It seeps into our every day lives in both microscopic and fatal ways.

Consider for a moment that the standard for justice in the Grand Jury hearings in the recent police killings of unarmed black men has been whether those police felt threatened. I am not surprised that they met that standard. Did Darren Wilson feel threatened?  You bet he did. And therein lies the problem. Was the killing of Michael Brown necessary, justifiable, or commensurate with whatever he had done before Officer Wilson saw him walking in the street with his friend? No. Yet, when we base justice on white intuitions of fear in a society that has not dealt with the wounds of race, injustice reigns.

There will never be justice until white culture deals with its deep and systemic fear of black people. It permeates everything–where we live, whom we love, how we react to situations before we’ve even had a minute to think.

Why are we so afraid?  Can anyone answer that question in a way that feels ok to say out loud?  This fear is literally killing people who are needlessly dying.  And not just that, it is feeding systems of enforcement, accountability, and incarceration that have stolen lives and opportunities from people of color in droves. And not just that, it has diminished the lives of white people, too.  Living in fear is hazardous to your health, and to the well-being of your soul.

Isn’t it time for us to look at it in a different way than we have before as a society?  Isn’t it time for white people to face our fears with some moral courage instead of the most lethal weapons we have at our disposal?

There are more white lies, to be sure. These are just the seven deadliest that came to me, a white person who has been working for a long, long time to stop lying to myself and the world about race and privilege.

What if we stopped telling white lies? Maybe we’d experience a little less comfort and a lot more justice.

2 thoughts on “White Lies”

  1. Andrea Bercos says:

    This was a hard read…but such an important one. Thank you for writing this!

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Andrea. It was a “hard write” too. So much pain, layers and layers. And those layers can be hard to face. May we find the courage to continue on this healing journey.

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