How Racism Hurts White People


by Rachel Siegel, PJC Executive Director

I must be very clear: racism does not harm white people the same way it harms people of color. People of color die every day from racism. The harm it does to us, white people, is subtler. It corrupts and limits us. It is a poison that, if unchecked, flourishes in us. It is meaningful to understand how racism benefits white people, and it is also meaningful to unpack how it hurts us.

Racism hurts me culturally, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. It gets in the way of having easy, authentic relationships. It leaves me feeling guilty and full of shame. It ruins me emotionally and fills me with rage and despair.

Because of racism, untold numbers of people might have created beautiful art, made significant scientific discoveries, and so much more had they not been oppressed and struggling for survival. Maybe we would have cured cancer.

In my whiteness, I have left behind community in a manner inverted to the ways that other racial groups have built it. In our ideas of autonomy and pulling oneself up by our bootstraps, we have limited our ability to truly connect.

Whiteness emphasizes the mind over the body. We mostly feel our bodies when we are trying to get better and compete (sports and fitness) or when we are trying to improve ourselves through diet. My eating disorder is related to my whiteness.

In our whiteness, we leave behind ethnicity to varying degrees. We have lost language, ritual, religion, food, and music. We are then set up to fetishize people who eat “ethnic food” and listen to cool music.

We have internalized false ideas of fear that control our minds when we encounter certain people. We are unable to control the stereotypes that have infiltrated our brains. We are more likely to assume safety with others who may in fact not be safe.

Sexism, classism, and all sorts of other forms of oppression benefit from racism. Any of us white people who live with any oppressed identity group are being harmed by racism in an indirect way. That is to say, classism is upheld and strengthened by racism. Racism, and all oppressions, in the end, benefit one demographic above all else – wealthy, white, straight males, born in the US, and able bodies – and the rest of us suffer as a result. And if you are, like me, a white Ashkenazi Jew, we are at tremendous risk should White Nationalist’s step up their offense. Jews are, after all, seen as the mastermind behind the elimination of the white race – more dangerous, in their minds, than black and brown people.

Whiteness is a social construct that was created to give some people power and to marginalize others. Race only exists in order to uphold racism. But that does not mean “color blindness” is the answer. Until racism is eliminated, we need to hold on to the construct of race.

Almost two years ago, the Racial Justice Advisory Committee of the PJC said that we should help white people see how racism harms them/us. The idea was that this might motivate white people to care more deeply and move away from savior syndrome. To that end, we started hosting a monthly, drop-in discussion group on Toxic Whiteness.

It is healing to have a space specifically designed to share our emotions and experiences of racism so that when we are in multiracial spaces, we do not center our emotions. I hope you’ll join us at a Toxic Whiteness discussion group to talk about these things and more. If you are not near Burlington and would like to have us come facilitate in your area, let us know.