I’ve been reflecting on the overwhelming surprise and rage expressed by the masses of white people at the actions of U.S. Customs and Border Protection with respect to the policies at the border: the separation of children from their families and the tear gassing of asylum seekers. Given the massive public outcry against these actions, it signals that for many white people across the country, this is the first introduction to our southern border policies. And the sight of children in cages rightfully touched a nerve among everyday Americans, where even those who have not been politically active refused to remain silent and thrust themselves into visible action to demand a change. A broad-based shift in consciousness is welcome, for this provides the critical mass needed for action and accountability from the institutional powers. Without which, the status quo remains.
Our country has a rich history of forced removal of children from families. In essence, this is exactly who we are. This is who we have always been.
Sometimes our most well-intentioned voices are misinformed or can have unintended consequences. Under the guise of solidarity with immigrant children and their families, I witness well-meaning yet misguided white people, from Khloe Kardashian to politicians and activists state “this is not who we are” as a country. Activists pushed back to remind us that our country has a legacy of family separation as far back as the transatlantic slave trade and extended to indigenous people and interned Japanese Americans. It has been stated by activists and academics that family separation is a tool that is a common practice of colonizers. Our country has a rich history of forced removal of children from families. In essence, this is exactly who we are. This is who we have always been. Similarly, in another attempt to show solidarity, white people will claim that we are a “land of immigrants.” That, too, is a misnomer that erases our country’s history and the impact of colonization on indigenous peoples. We are a nation of colonizers. Settler colonialism has never left the psyches of the white ruling elite and has only evolved.
I reconnected with a friend from my hometown on social media. We hadn’t spoken in more than a decade. He casually stated that he moved from there because it had been, in fact, invaded. What he alluded to was an influx of immigrants. I sat with this comment and felt emotions wash over me. He used racially coded language to describe his experience of being threatened by the mere presence of immigrants who were undoubtedly from south of the border. As a white cisgender heterosexual man, he embodies all characteristics of privilege, and any form of privilege results in entitlement, the belief that one is deserving of special privileges or treatment. As such, he felt entitled to claim that his rightful space has been encroached upon by the “other.” His actions were not unique, and were indicative of a norm for white people. It is within this interaction—coupled with the ongoing revelation of the atrocities and human rights violations at the border—that provoked me to explore the link between socialization into whiteness and our ongoing entitlement to land and place. As such, this not only causes reactionary and inflammatory responses, such as my friend’s, but also underpins family separation and other inhumane policies at the border.
According to Robin D’Angelo:
white people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.
In a culture where whiteness sits atop the social hierarchy, the benefits include an assumption of racial superiority and right to racial comfort. As such, when our sense of racial comfort and superiority is ruptured and racial stressors take hold, it evokes a response. This can include, but is not limited to, a fight or flight response.
The viewpoint held by my friend, who undoubtedly would never believe that he held racist ideology, undergirds what has driven white people to take action to preserve racial comfort when feeling our space is threatened by the “other.” In his instance, and for generations before him, the desire for racial dominance and segregation has translated into the all too common practice of white flight, paired with a sense of entitlement to space. White people, even the allegedly “good” northerners, have historically adopted and practiced behaviors to ensure racial segregation. As D’Angelo states, we move through life to protect our perceived entitlement to racial comfort, and leading segregated lives is one tool we use. We choose “good” neighborhoods and “good” schools, implicit in this choice is that “good” is code language for white. Thus, we make explicit and implicit choices to surround ourselves in whiteness. As the community integrates, fleeing one’s neighborhood in search of white homogeneity and dominance is a strategy that white people have employed for generations.
The entitlement that my friend felt so deeply is congruent with the mentality of the Trump administration. This administration desires to maintain white racial dominance in this country, and are using violent tactics to do so. This could be characterized as a “fight” response to ensuring our right to place and racial comfort. Rather than fleeing racially mixed neighborhoods in search of homogeneity, the ruling white elite manufactures harsh immigration policies. Furthermore, the violent tactics used vis a vis vigilantes, border patrol agents, and detention centers, all require an element of violence to maintain dominance over the space at the southern border. Family separation, killings, drugging and physically and sexually assaulting children, are all familiar tactics used by those who wish to dominate. The extension and enhancement of the brutal policies aimed at immigrants by the Trump administration signals that there is an unabashed desire to fight. The “fight” response that our government employs with its border policies is obviously unjust, and many white people have expressed their outrage. But the “flight” response that white people engage in with our choices of where to live and when to move are an insidious side of the same coin: white people continue to hold the bulk of power and resources and to benefit from that power, to the detriment of people of color. The “fight” that the state is perpetuating against immigrants is not new, and part of a legacy of settler colonialism.
A definition of settler colonialism is that it is a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. This form of colonialism presumes that the colonizer intends to stay and maintain dominance over the existing peoples and land. This dominance is carried out through various forms of violence, plunder, displacement, policies, laws, and production of racist propaganda that promotes dominant cultural narratives of superiority of the settler. As settler colonizers aimed to expand westward, they justified the expansion by a philosophy known as manifest destiny. Manifest destiny is the ideology that the creation of the United States was inevitable and part of God’s plan. This 19th century propaganda was used to justify intentional genocide, enslavement, and cultural erasure. The forced displacement of indigenous people, land grabs, treaties, and wars with Mexico stole land from indigenous people and created our southern border. Racist tropes of indigenous people, Africans, and other people of color, got their origins from early colonizers and continued to hold throughout the centuries. Since the beginning of colonization, this country was rooted in the creation of a superior (white) class who dominated and dehumanized the “other” to maintain control over land, resources, property, and wealth. We manufactured borders as a result of our ancestral desires to conquer land and people for wealth and natural resources. We continue to fight to maintain dominance for these reasons.
For white people, we have a legacy of weaponizing our white privilege through our reaction to a perceived threat from the “other.” This is illustrated through acts such as calling the police on Black people who are going about daily activities, violently defending one’s neighborhood from integration, or using political and violent means to prevent school desegregation. In all instances, there is an expectation to be treated as the victim. Part of the consequence of our socialization as white people is that we lose a piece of ourselves. That is, our humanity is lost—an ability to embody human connection and empathy that translates to actions that lift up others who do not look like us. Our intimate connection to humans and the earth is forfeited so we receive the illusion of superiority. The absence creates a void that we search to fill. Our disconnection to ourselves and others, combined with state power, is a recipe that allows for policies and actions that support white supremacy, as illustrated by the violent conditions at the border, and beyond.
In present day, racist narratives to promote white superiority and entitlement have remained unchanged, only the language has shifted. Racially coded language is the acceptable norm and it achieves the same outcome of “manifest destiny.” Reinforcing stereotypes and reproduction of harmful messages indoctrinate us into a culture of believing that there always will be the scary, vile, and undeserving “other” who must be controlled, conquered, or exploited. From “welfare queen” to “terrorist” to “illegals” to “thug,” these are all terms used to dehumanize the “other” and give us, white people, a sense of our own superiority. Our internalized presumption of superiority is an extension of a historical settler colonialist legacy of belonging here above anyone else. That our belonging over all others must be protected by documentation, borders, a wall, surveillance, and a Muslim ban.
This attitude of entitlement is an extension of white privilege, rooted in our legacy of settler colonialism. Our settler colonialist mentality instructs that only if the “other” is excluded from our rightful place, then life’s struggles will disappear. If not for the “other” we would have security, employment, good schools, healthcare, and social services will only go to the deserving, hard working, white people. Politicians thrive on exploiting the fears and anxieties that white workers have about our own survival in a capitalist society that has increased wealth for the top earners while squeezing out the rest of us.
When we feel resources are scarce, when our survival is threatened, we search for answers to why we are struggling—and who’s to blame. We blame the “other.” It is up to us to release ourselves from the constraints of our settler colonialist mentality. If we want to achieve a better quality of life, and to truly be liberated, we must recognize the ways we facilitate oppression even as we condemn the more obviously egregious examples of that same oppression. We must act together, in solidarity, with all oppressed people.
Dahlia Ferlito and Rosie Friedland
This piece is written by Dahlia Ferlito and co-authored by Rosie Friedland. Dahlia is a white, queer, anti-racist organizer and co-founder of White People 4 Black Lives (WP4BL). Special thanks to Karen Hilfman and JLove Calderon for editing. WP4BL is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice. WP4BL is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles. Visit www.awarela.org and follow us @wp4bl