Waiting for White America

There’s this great word that has surfaced in recent years: Columbusing.

As defined by Urban Dictionary, Columbusing is “when white people claim they have invented/discovered something that has been around for years, decades, even centuries.”

I’ve mostly heard the phrase applied to elements of cultural identity. White people have Columbused jazz, blues, Motown and rap.

White people have Columbused cornrows. twerking, The Harlem Shake, and even empanadas – I mean, hand pies. It seems there is no end to the list of items that have been Columbused.

And if cultural appropriation wasn’t enough, I’ve been reflecting on another element of Columbusing – outrage over injustice.

In reading Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer, I’ve been struck by the extent to which the whole summer was orchestrated by SNCC not only as a wake up call to white America, but as a mechanism for giving white America a stake in the fight.

In more generous terms, one could argue that in any social movement a small group of people tries to bring their message to a large group of people. But let’s be real: in this case the “small group of people” was a large number of southern blacks who had been organizing for over a decade and the “large group of people” was an elite group of white northerners who considered themselves liberal.

When these elite, white students descended on Mississippi for the summer, they were shocked by the reality they found there. They were shocked by the physical abuse, the emotional harassment, and the downright disregard for the law. Their parents were shocked by the letters home. The media was shocked at the experience of these white kids.

After over a decade of black organizing, white Americans came to Mississippi and discovered our country had a race problem. They Columbused the hell out of that shit.

That was in 1964. The dawn of the civil rights movement.

Of course it dawned long before that, but for white America, 1964 was watershed.I find this particularly interesting now, given the social context we find ourselves in.

With black deaths nightly on the television, white America is again starting to realize there might be something to this discrimination issue.

I’ve seen so many articles about what white America should do, how to talk to white Americans about race, why white Americans shut down when issues are raised.

White Americans should be a part of the conversation, of course, just as all people should be part of the conversation. As someone who is white myself, it probably makes a lot of sense for me personally to talk to other white Americans, to help them join this conversation.

But – I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re a nation just waiting for the majority of white America to Columbus social justice. Because once white Americans Columbus social justice, then we can have a real conversation, then we can have real change.

And that’s kind of messed up.

White people need to lead the change because white people are the ones with the most power. But what we really need to do is to shift power structures – to change who has the right to voice a concern and who is listened to when they speak.

I don’t know how we do that. I don’t know how I do that – as a white girl who is almost certainly Columbusing this idea from somewhere. But let’s work on that.

Let’s bring everyone into the conversation, yes, let’s make everyone part of the change.

But let’s not wait for the majority of white Americans to discover we have a racial problem before we do anything about it.

The change should have come decades ago.


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