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