After the Tide, Part 2: Breaking White Fear

Proud Boys demonstration
Photo by Evelyn Hockstein via Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
October 22, 2021

I used to imagine Nazis, white supremacists and other white power activists were all minted in a grimy factory crammed with KKK paraphernalia, Hitler newsreels and spoiled beer, plus some personal hangups that had been weaponized into group grievance. But it’s not that simple. In fact, sometimes those of us who profess to be anti-racist end up alienating potential allies—and even help to create racists. Years ago, in fact, a friend told me the sad and unintended origin story of a racist, and I’ve held to it as a lesson ever since.

My friend was very active on a popular video site at the time, the kind of place that people visited to feel better about the world. No, it wasn’t YouTube. But one day someone posted a video about white privilege, and the comments section lit up. A commenter with an earnest and friendly persona shared a thought that went something like, “Hey, I’m white. Can someone explain this white privilege thing to me? I’ve been poor all my life. My family is poor, and I don’t feel all that privileged or better than anybody else. What exactly does this mean?” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist.

In response, others swarmed this commenter; they attacked him for not knowing the answer to the question he posed. They wrote things like, “You should know!” and “Look it up!” and “I can’t believe you’re asking such a stupid question.” It was a real pile-on of shame, very Game of Thrones

This is the second article of a series. To read Part 1, click here.

As the dust settled, someone else stepped forward to offer an alternative view: Of course the mob wasn’t interested in answering the commenter’s question; instead, they only cared about airing their own views and making him look stupid. This person also told him, notably, that these attackers were actually racist themselves for having shunned him and rejected his question without the least bit of empathy. 

This person was persuasive, and they found a vulnerable and willing pupil. Over months they slowly opened that commenter’s mind to some of the ugliest, most hateful, and false propaganda online and converted him into the very thing that the people who shamed him said they are against. In a period of months, that original commenter went from a person genuinely curious about racism to a racist, himself. 

After I heard this story, I felt differently about mobs piling onto people who’ve made race mistakes. I’ve thoughtlessly joined in such mobs myself with a retweet that felt good in the moment but did no good in the world. I’m sure the targets of such aggressive condemnation don’t all become active racists, but the number who do is more than zero, and it’s a number we can’t afford if our real goal is to achieve the liberty and justice for all that we claim to want. 

When we join a mob of woke police, it can feel exhilarating, like we’re in an army on the right side of history doing battle against the retrograde forces of white supremacy or some other systemic ailment. Sometimes we are. But sometimes we’re demanding people grow and then not giving them the space to do so. 

I see the current racial moment as an opportunity for growth. I’ve been tentatively excited by the number of white people showing up to participate in what I consider to be a shared quest for liberation. But I’ve also seen the backlash to this potential progress, and I know that some of it is sparked by intolerance and impatience on the part of those fighting for justice. 

I sometimes forget how new so many people are to thinking about systems of oppression. Growing up as I and so many BIPOC folks have, we often take for granted the advanced, graduate-level education we’ve already received in racism. Many of us hold informal PhDs in systemic oppression, white supremacy, and more. Then we find ourselves in the company of a white person who was previously unaware of these inequities, and we yell at them for not possessing the proper vocabulary. It’s like post-doctoral students yelling at kindergartners for not conjugating verbs in the subjunctive. 

It’s kind of hilarious, totally understandable, but also tragic. And it gives us an opportunity to ask, what do we want? Do we want to feel good about being right? Or do we want to be effective in winning over more people to join the fight? Maybe both? I just know that the answer to a question generally shouldn’t be, “You should already know the answer!” This approach, applied broadly, is antithetical to progress.

I understand that people get tired of engaging in and explaining race issues. I’ve sometimes felt that way, myself. Back in 2016, I was hosting a podcast with Tanner Colby (white guy) and Raquel Cepeda (Latina) called About Race. After one of our recording sessions, I said to Tanner, “I think I’m done with teaching people about race.” And I meant “I” in an historical and collective sense. I told Tanner I couldn’t think of anything more to be done: the information was all there, at everyone’s fingertips. We had written the books and poems, invented the Blues and Hip Hop, proven our humanity time and time again; so whatever there was left to learn, I was ready to leave it to white people to figure out. We’d left multimedia libraries worth of knowledge and experience for them to explore. 

I was pretty proud of my opt-out and felt like I had given what I could. Then Tanner told me my idea was terrible, and not just because he wanted to keep making a podcast with me but because, “White people will screw this up if you leave it up to us entirely. You’ve seen what we’ve done through history.” Fuck. Was I ready to leave my freedom in the hands of people who don’t have a great track record of honoring it? I’d love to answer every racial inquiry with, “Google it,” but it seems a bit risky to outsource my liberation to an automated advertising engine. I really do hate when a white man makes a solid point about race, especially one that involves me doing more work. 

So, by my own lessons, Black folks have to keep helping white people be better at race, and we don’t even get to yell at them when they mess it up because they may take those hurt feelings over to Team Nazi? That ain’t fair! But here’s a momento I have found to be helpful: I’m on a learning journey, too. When I remember what it’s like to not know something—about the diversity of the Asian-American community, or how to talk about the transgender community, or how to grill a whole fish without it crumbling into a million little pieces—I regain some patience. When I remember that even where I do know a lot, I don’t know everything, I regain some humility. And when I’m tempted to respond out of anger I remember the scene on that video site, and I imagine how things could have played out differently if that young man had been offered something other than condemnation.

In the time since Derek Chauvin slowly murdered George Floyd in front of the world, I’ve been invited to speak with scores of organizations including schools, non-profits, and companies. I’ve laid out my own perspective about the work ahead to deliver on the promise of liberty and justice for all. Yet the most valuable part of all these engagements isn’t the sound of my own voice. It’s being able to see what’s going on in people’s inner lives. Thanks to COVID and Zoom, public speaking has gotten more intimate, and I can literally see people’s homes—the art, the kids, the chaos. But what I really get to see is people’s fear, especially white people and particularly white men. 

I’ve fielded hundreds of questions and seen thousands of faces, and I see people so terrified of saying the wrong thing they won’t say anything, so terrified of doing the wrong thing, they choose to do nothing. I see people who had a spark of inspiration to join the struggle and throw up a hashtag or a yard sign, but the moment things got uncomfortable, they tapped out. I see people who say they don’t feel like they can get anything right, and they are under too much scrutiny, and they are worried every day about being judged over a perceived mistake.

Welcome to humanity. Most of us feel some version of this all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I have modified my posture, tone of voice or gait in order to not be perceived as a Bad Person in a society that assumes that’s all I am. I know that feeling. Millions of us know and live with it in the United States daily. Yet most of us don’t have the option to quit. And as much as I counsel patience for those on a learning journey to be able to make mistakes, you actually have to be on the journey and make the mistakes to earn that grace. You might suffer a little bit. The process may hurt. 

White supremacy shouldn’t be defined by extreme people who don costumes and perform grotesque acts of hate-inspired violence. Instead, it’s a system designed to prioritize the economic, social, and cultural value of people we’ve defined as white. It’s a story of superiority that has infected every part of our society. And in this story, in this system, white people can make mistakes, but someone else pays for them. In the language of economics, white people’s mistakes are externalities. In the language of justice, we have made white discomfort and white pain a capital offense. We have lynched, drafted, policed, imprisoned, displaced, and poisoned Black, Indigenous and communities of color all to preserve the sanctity of whiteness. We built entire systems to defend white comfort.

So of course we’re going to have white people show up for racial justice and try to set the terms of that engagement so the work caters to their comfort. And we’ve seen the results: I believe Black Lives Matter, but I don’t want my kid to feel bad about American history so I’m not going to support teaching the whole truth about that history. Or: I know racism is still a problem, but I refuse to look at how my own behavior or my company further invests in a racist system because I don’t like feeling like a villain. Or even some version of: I’ll help you with your freedom, but only if I’m celebrated for doing so, and if at any time I feel criticized or there’s not an active parade in my honor for my selfless pursuit of racial harmony, I’m taking my ball and going home because I have that choice. In conclusion: I want the system to change, but I refuse to change myself, because I’m used to a system that demands everyone else change for me.

This unwillingness to experience the consequences of a mistake or the discomfort of a changing worldview is like going to the gym and never breaking a sweat or feeling strain in your muscles. In fact, it’s worse. It’s going to the gym, sitting on the exercise bike, and watching television while bragging about how committed you are to exercise.

Growth always risks something. To improve our physical fitness, we strain against weights, push our heart rates, dampen our clothes with sweat. A good workout doesn’t necessarily feel good while you’re doing it. Indeed, the telltale sign that you’re working out is that you’re in pain. We have to remember that when trying to grow in other areas and expect it, even welcome it. 

None of us wants to be considered a Bad Person. I can relate to the fear of that label. As a child, the worst feelings I experienced occurred when I did something to disappoint my mother, committed some offense or mistake, and I thought she considered me a Bad Son. Beyond that childhood narrative, I’ve been living in a body in a systemwide narrative that branded me as bad from the beginning just for being Black.

But if I’m sincerely committed to my liberation and yours, I need to remember the pain and unfairness of that branding and refuse to apply it in return. And I need you to remember that you’re going to be fucking fine, that pain is proof of effort and can be a teacher, that if you’re totally comfortable and never make a mistake, then you’re not working hard enough. None of us are. 

I’m asking for something complex if not contradictory. I want us to push each other to grow, to allow for and even encourage mistakes. I want white people to grow. I want to grow, and growth requires room. Yet not so much room that there’s no accountability or feedback which might be uncomfortable. Put another way, growth also requires pain. I don’t want us to so accommodate the fragile ego of whiteness that we end up perpetuating the system we’re trying to change. But we also must acknowledge the counter-productivity of alienating the people most invested in our oppression.

This is hard, but so is most anything worth doing. I’m arguing for tension—a healthy tension that pulls a rope in opposite directions, delicately enough not to break, but firmly enough that we can all walk across.

I’ll be back soon with another installment of After The Tide. Meanwhile, share your feedback by emailing