Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO — If it’s true, as some assert, that the increased stridency of white supremacists has made it acceptable to show racial prejudice, then white people are going to start feeling the pain of being associated with a small, fringe group of over-the-top racists.

The other day, when riding the train in Chicago, I noticed that I was surrounded by several young white men, apparently on their way to work. I quickly realized that I was studying them closely to determine whether they might be white nationalist sympathizers.

Did a close haircut and the choice of a white polo and khaki pants mean anything other than just another day of cubicle-dwelling at some downtown high-rise? Did the tattooed white men also riding along with me deserve the same scrutiny?

The answers to both: Of course not.

I was being overly sensitive after a weekend of viewing images of young white men carrying Confederate flags and wielding shields emblazoned with Nazi symbols in Charlottesville, Virginia. But my knee-jerk thoughts made me fear for my husband and sons. What conclusions will others jump to when they see their white skin, tattoos and, in my husband’s case, shaved head?

Suddenly, they have the potential to be profiled in the same way as I am when people see my dark features and wonder — sometimes out loud and to my face — whether I am an “illegal alien,” a terrorist or both.

This burden is being brought down on white people by a vocal minority of sick individuals who are intent on reviving a past that this country has never healed from. But it’s a strain that whites must face.

Speaking on NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute” podcast, Grace Elizabeth Hale, author of the book “Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940” and professor of American studies and history at the University of Virginia, put it this way: “Not all white people are the same, and there are extremes of white supremacy and violence, and I would like to note them — it is not every white person who’s going to drive their car into a group of protesters. That said, for white people those privileges and those ways in which they are assumed to be at the center of American culture, assumed to be the people who matter, assumed to be the people who can happily occupy a park with a Confederate statue in the middle of it ... white people don’t get to say, ‘Well, that’s not me, I’m not that person -- I voted for [Barack] Obama.’”

She continued: “It doesn’t absolve you. ... Other people make assumptions about your identity and you are treated in certain ways, and you don’t get to choose those. White people can’t opt out of them by suggesting, ‘That’s not me, I didn’t do that.’ ... I think that’s one of the biggest problems many white people in America have, this desire not to be blamed, this kind of visceral emotional desire to be innocent.”

This is an incredibly important point.

As a minority who has attended majority-white private schools, majority-white public schools and colleges, worked in majority-white workplaces and am currently the only person of color at my own family’s Thanksgiving dinner, I absolutely know that white people are, on the whole, generous, loving people with no more prejudice and bias in their hearts than any flawed human of any race.

But there are so many other members of racial and ethnic minorities who have experienced enmity and discrimination at the hands of white people that, as a society, we are in danger of tipping into a mutual and irreparable distrust of each other.

Such a moment requires a very specific type of sacrifice: Rejecting the moral superiority of victimhood.

In the case of white people who harbor no ill will toward people of color, it would be easy to feel put out because a vocal minority is calling for ethnic cleansing and giving white people a bad name in the eyes of many.

Whether they like it or not, white people are now in the uncomfortable position of being on the defensive about their views on race. They should be angry about this.

But, white friends, family members and advocates, please place the blame squarely on the shoulders of white supremacists, not on the people of color who are newly vulnerable in an America that seems more hostile to us than ever because of the color of our skin.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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