When 5 police officers were killed in Dallas, it was so easy for Americans to go back to ignoring the brutality routinely visited on Black and Brown communities. That easy shift made me even more determined to say what I say here. We must do better! And that “we” needs to include white people to a degree that it rarely does.
Full text of audio:
My name is Koritha Mitchell. I’ve been surrounded by whites my whole life and that has not translated into being surrounded by excellence. In fact, the older I get and the more I achieve, the more I see how much American culture lies to create the assumption that whiteness brings excellence. The truth is that our country’s standards for white people are so low that most of our problems—including the unrelenting violence against people of color—can be traced to those low standards.
It doesn’t take much at all for a white person to be considered good. As long as they avoid killing someone themselves, no one is going to demand anything else of them. Whites don’t need to do anything decent for anyone, especially not people outside of their own family, and yet, everyone will assume that they are good people. Even when whites do undeniably harmful things, American culture explains it away. This is why our society subjects impressive people of color to dehumanization that a white person who behaves despicably doesn’t encounter. You know, like when Dylan Roof killed 9 black people in their church and the police gave him a bulletproof vest and bought him lunch. As Dr. David Leonard puts it so well, American institutions literally manufacture innocence for whites.
Whites are considered good pretty much without any reference to actual standards. If Americans used standards, like does this person contribute to society, to the common good, then we’d have to admit that many white people don’t measure up and don’t even try to measure up because they are not expected to. White people are considered to be good based on their demographic, not based on any actual criteria. This is more of a social problem than a personal one; it’s about American society’s low expectations and how those low expectations shape behavior. The culture is set up to ensure that whites are mediocre (or worse) and that non-white people suffer because of the low standards to which white people are held.
Again, this is not personal; this is cultural and systemic, so whites can refuse to live according to the low expectations their country has of them. Will they? That’s a question whose relevance will not fade as I watch the dehumanization, demonization, and murder of Black and Brown people on repeat.
Because our society has exceedingly low expectations of whites, we have a society full of people who feel no responsibility for doing anything that benefits anyone but themselves. At the same time, many will do anything or go along with anything that hurts other people if they believe it will bring more opportunities and resources to the few people in their family that they care about. And that’s exactly what this country encourages, going through the world with an attitude of “I’ve got mine; I don’t give a damn if you ever get a chance to get yours.” This is why the United States is full of cities where some neighborhoods have high schools that look like college campuses while high schools down the street look and feel like prisons. White Americans are constantly taught that it’s only right for them to move through the world focused only on their own opportunities and resources. Because that’s the American Way, I have to tell you: My name is Koritha Mitchell. I’ve been surrounded by whites my whole life. That has meant being surrounded by examples of white mediocrity. It has also meant routinely being a witness as innocence is manufactured for whites who don’t even have the decency to be mediocre.
And I want to be clear: white mediocrity is very much linked to violence against people of color. Whiteness is a powerful set of beliefs that yield material outcomes. Whiteness determines who has wealth in this country, who can expect to get justice, who constantly gets the benefit of the doubt. Whiteness (and the racism it facilitates) are not personal. That’s why a white man or woman doesn’t have to do anything particularly well to end up with above-average success. Whites prove to be mediocre (or worse) all the time but they are constantly given chances to succeed, whether they deserve it or not. And this is to say nothing about how federal programs like FHA loans were funneled away from people of color and toward whites so that white families could build wealth while others were barred from doing so. Therefore, a white family doesn’t have to contain particularly hard-working people to have 4X the wealth of a black family that is full of generations of people who worked hard.
Still, as I watch the death toll of Black and Brown folk killed by people like George Zimmerman, Dylan Roof, and by police, I can’t help but notice how much injustice is fueled by this country’s exceedingly low expectations of white people and by how this country encourages white people to have exceedingly low expectations of themselves. There are too many examples to name, so I’ll give a few and ask that you fill in others for yourself.
American expectations of whites are so low that they are never assumed capable of identifying with anyone but themselves. If you’re going to finally make a movie that doesn’t cast Muslims as terrorists—the film about the famous scholar and poet Rumi, for example—then naturally, you have to cast a white actor to play Rumi. You can’t expect whites to support something if they aren’t the center of it. Or, if you’re going to tell a story about working class students struggling in schools that our society refuses to invest in, you have to cast a white savior. Why honor the black and brown men and women who kept those communities afloat with no resources? Whites aren’t interested in that. You can’t have a compelling story if whites don’t dominate it. Of course, the same goes for books, but I’m not just talking about how no one expects white readers to identify with characters who aren’t white. [Sidebar: Low expectations are why writers of color get such meager opportunities while mediocre white writers benefit from extraordinary marketing. That pitiful novel The Help, which became not only a bestseller but also a blockbuster film, immediately comes to mind.] But, as I say, I’m not just thinking of novels; I’m thinking of our nation’s textbooks. White people have such low expectations of themselves to make life better for anyone but themselves that even our textbooks are constantly whitewashed; powerful Americans erase anything that acknowledges that whites are in power, not because they deserve to be but because everything is set up to make sure they win, whether they deserve to or not.
We know that this is a racist country, that if history is taught the way it has always been taught, then white students will have role models and a sense of pride… and students of color won’t, but do we truly change anything about American education? No! Heaven forbid that white teachers would have to do better. Heaven forbid that they’d have to keep growing and learning. Heaven forbid that they be held accountable when whites are the only students that typically blossom under their guidance.
We know that this is a heterosexist country, that if schooling continues as it always has, then straight-identified students will have role models and a sense of pride… and LGBTQ+ students won’t, but do we truly change American education? No! Heaven forbid that straight teachers would have to do better. Surely, we can’t expect them to keep growing and learning. We can’t expect to assess them negatively when straight students are the only ones who thrive under their tutelage.
Given these American tendencies, when you have black and brown people dying in the streets, whites aren’t encouraged to assess themselves or each other with actual standards. Just being white means they are good people. They didn’t go out and shoot Tamir Rice or kill Sandra Bland or Philando Castile or Alton Sterling or Pedro Villanueva or Anthony Nunez. They didn’t go out lynch someone in Piedmont Park and harass Kai Kitchen, so “it’s a shame what’s happening, but it has nothing to do with me,” they reason. But how could that be true? After all, these American tragedies happen because our entire culture makes it not only possible but also common. And a society that expects nothing of white people is dangerous because whites who do nothing reinforce the status quo; they keep our systems working the way they do. And make no mistake, when American institutions work the way they were designed to work, they ensure that black and brown excellence will mean little because white mediocrity will be considered merit. (Joe Walsh’s tweet to Obama is a good example.) Furthermore, when American institutions work as designed, they ensure that even when whites do actual harm—when they don’t have the decency to be mediocre—innocence will be manufactured them.
I say this because I’m clear about something that this culture wants to prevent everyone from understanding: black and brown people are not under attack because they’ve done something wrong. These injustices continue, but that’s not because black and brown activists haven’t used the right strategy. People love to claim, you have to be calm as you protest, you have to speak in a way that the powerful will respect, you have to dress in a way that doesn’t alienate people. But following such rules does not matter. There’s no right way to protest your own dehumanization and your community’s destruction, especially when your country insists that there’s nothing violent, uncivilized, and un-American about how it routinely dehumanizes and destroys certain populations. If there were a right way to protest, the brutality would’ve ended long ago because black and brown people have tried literally every strategy, whether it’s accommodation and assimilation or separatism. Nothing has kept us safe. Why? Because these problems are not caused by OUR choices. The murderous conditions under which we live are not of our own making; they white-authored. Whites insisted that the practices supporting whiteness would not just support whiteness but also do everything imaginable to rob everyone else of life chances. Even the most middle-of-the-road white person benefits from the whiteness that keeps them draped in opportunity and resources while others are stripped of opportunity and resources, so it’s time to get real: Do you actually care about fair play? Do you really believe that fair play is the American way? Then you must begin judging whites based on actual standards, not just demographics. Being white shouldn’t be enough to be considered good. Low expectations for white people. That’s what’s killing us. Please, do better.