On Sept. 14, the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice hosted a town hall on being White in a multicultural society. Both Black and White panelists were aware of the greater struggles of Black people in our society and of White privilege and easier access. One of the most poignant comments made by a Black panelist was “I always have to be on the defensive” vis-à-vis her race, an experience none of the White panelists has ever had.
What was striking, however, was how difficult it was to focus on what it would mean for White people to be in a multicultural society and not a White-centric one, which is what we currently have. Because White centrism is historically the only lens we have and know, it is difficult to feel into what it would mean to not have that centrality.
Imagine two circles, one with a white circle in the middle and the other with circles of different colors around the circumference. That white circle is the center, around which all on the periphery move. Much of the space in the circle is unused because of the structures put in place to keep those outside from getting in. There is always us and them. That is the world we live in now.
Then, imagine moving that white circle from the center and moving others into the circle. There is no entity in the middle, no us and other. We are all us.
What would that shift mean for White people and how would we feel about it? Given the incredible polarization in our country now, with so much centered around race, the answer to that question looks pretty stark: White folks don’t want to give up privilege. The targets of the new voting restrictions in many states in the nation are Black and Brown people, the part of our population that has traditionally voted for policies and people that work to dismantle systemic racism. We see this effort to keep Black and Brown folks “in their place” is rampant throughout all our systems, including education, health care, housing, infrastructure, policing and criminal justice.
Living in a truly multicultural society means sharing all these things in an equitable way. It means giving up what Heather McGhee calls the “zero sum game” — that is, if Black folks gain, White folks have to lose. Right now, we seem able to imagine only one outcome of this conditional “if, then” statement, the win-lose. We cannot imagine win-win. And because of this win-lose paradigm we have, we all end up losing.
McGhee illustrates this in the clearest way with her analogy of the drained pool. There was a time when huge community pools were built, at first for White people only. Integration meant that Black people could also swim in those pools. So rather than sharing, there were places where White folks drained the pools. The rich built their own. Expensive Whites-only clubs were established. But what of all the millions of White folk who were not members of an exclusive club or who weren’t rich enough for their own pools? They lost, right along with those Black folk they wanted to keep separate from at all costs.
Had there been sharing, no one would have lost. Not only that, in the shared experience, there might have come the aha recognition that we all have the same need: to have a place where we can cool down, have some fun and hang out. In that shared experience, over time, we might even have discovered other commonalities. Kids might have swapped games. Adults might have talked about food and jobs and raising kids. And everyone might have left those fun days just a bit richer in understanding and recognizing our shared humanity. Instead, we opted for a lose-lose paradigm.
Rather than asking what we will lose in a multicultural society, we should ask what we will gain.
We know there is enough wealth in our country to share, if only we would. If White people can let go of White power and privilege, we can also let go of our fight, our hate and anger and fear, all of which are destructive to everyone’s mental and physical health.
Imagine the innovative ideas and solutions that will come from peoples with different ways of problem solving and the richness of learning from other cultures. Imagine the expansion of programs that will help all people if we come together and demand them. Sports teams are more likely to do better if they play together as a team, and everyone shares in that betterment. Human beings are more likely to thrive if we work together, if we are the us of a multicultural society, rather than the we/they of a White-centric one.
Sara Ford writes on behalf of the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.