George Floyd’s death, the latest in a series of unprovoked attacks by the police on Black men and women, has sparked a moment of real change across the world. Some are donating and using their platforms to share resources, others are calling and emailing their representatives, and still more are taking to the streets in protest. But there’s another way to spark change that often gets overlooked, despite its powerful potential: the self-reflection we as white people can do to examine our internal biases and become self-aware enough to help educate others. For far too long, the burden of explaining and working to actively oppose systemic racism has been on Black people — and stars like Matthew McConaughey are asking how they can use their white privilege to lighten the load.
McConaughey sat down with former NFL star Emmanuel Acho for a candid Instagram Live conversation about racism and race, kicked off by the True Detective actor explaining his motivations for coming on the show.
“[I came on] to have a conversation, hopefully promote more conversation,” McConaughey explained. “With the end goal being that we take the time we are now in to constructively turn the page in history through some righteous and justifiable change.”
Then, the actor got to the heart of the issue for white people as a whole: “Someone like me, how can I do better as a human? How can I do better as a man? How can I do better as a white man?”
Acho’s advice sounds simple — but fair warning, white people: all our training, all our lives, will make this type of work difficult and uncomfortable in practice.
“You have to acknowledge that there’s a problem so that you can take more ownership for the problem,” Acho told McConaughey. “Individually, you have to acknowledge implicit bias, you have to acknowledge that you’ll see a black man and for whatever reason, you will view them as more of a threat than the white man. Probably because society told you to.”
It’s hard for white people to hear that we can’t necessarily trust our own perceptions — but historically, we’ve pushed off that discomfort by turning around and accusing Black people of perceiving things incorrectly themselves. When BIPOC muster the courage to point out racist words and actions to white people, they’re often accused of “playing the race card” or misunderstanding someone’s intentions. In truth, we’re the ones who have been perpetually, obstinately misunderstanding these situations.
To that end, the first step you can take in acknowledging racism is vowing to believe BIPOC whenever they point it out — and doing the hard work of unlearning many things you think and feel reflexively. McConaughey addresses another common form of pushback from those who believe that racial injustice is overstated: the idea that, if you’ve struggled as a white person, you can’t possibly have white privilege.
“Whites and blacks can all have it hard, but whites never had it harder because the color of their skin. I may realize that, but I never looked at that side of the coin,” McConaughey admitted. “Where we were raised and how we were raised, and our history growing up, there’s certain just imported, obvious ways that we are prejudiced that we don’t even understand.”
For Acho, it’s important to remember that an institution as gruesome and pervasive as slavery is still inextricably linked to the treatment of African-Americans today. “The wake of slavery is still hitting African-Americans. Systemic injustice, poor school systems, voter suppression.”
Even the most well-meaning white person, when faced with this reality, can feel discomfort to the point that they’re tempted to turn away. But Acho reminds us that stewing in our guilt isn’t useful — for us or for the Black people who need our help in overthrowing a racist society.
“Don’t feel guilty,” Acho advises. “Just acknowledge.”
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