Racism, 'White Fatigue,' And Our Role As Americans

May 11, 2018

America has been dealing with racism for hundreds of years, but we still have a long way to go. In the first of a two-part Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Susan Stephens sits down with Northern Illinois University professor Joseph Flynn to talk about racism’s deep roots in American culture and institutions. Flynn teaches future educators about social justice issues and is the author of the book “White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice.” He says most people know that racism is wrong at the individual level. But they’re reluctant to see the big historic picture.

Dr. Joseph Flynn, Jr.
Credit Carl Nelson / WNIJ

Dr. Joseph Flynn grew up in Peoria, where his childhood was steeped in both black and white culture. His family was the first black family in his neighborhood and most of his friends were white. This background helped shape his future as an author and social justice educator at Northern Illinois University.

Flynn says part of the problem with America’s understanding of race is that people know individual attitudes and actions are important, but decisions are always made within a larger context.

“Institutions and systems don’t impact all of us the same way,” he said. “It’s important to talk about individual racism, or prejudice and discrimination, and yeah, everyone is capable of being prejudiced and discriminating. But not everybody has the ability to create laws and policies. Not everybody has the ability to shape our daily practices and expectations. Since we don’t have a deeper understanding of how systemic and institutional racism functions, we end up kind of talking past each other.”

And that applies to officer-involved shootings of unarmed black men. For Flynn, “it’s not just about what did Michael Brown do, and why didn’t Eric Garner stop flailing around, it’s about that, in addition to Emmett Till, in addition to the Scottsboro Boys, in addition to fugitive slave capture forces, or posses. It’s a larger history. And a lot of that history was supported by law and policy for not just years, not just decades, but centuries.”

Take slavery, for example. Flynn says the topic makes people tense and even inspires some to say it’s time to move on. But he contends it’s not clear what people would be moving on from. He says it’s important to think bigger than just knowing that it ended. Flynn asks if people understand the “impact in shaping our social, political, and economic relations at the time? How did those events and actions reverberate across time, put us where we are today? And if we ran an institution that lasted for hundreds of years, and it shaped our country, why we don’t know about it is mindboggling. It’s part of what we ought to be doing in society to push us further about issues of race and how we get along with each other. If that’s really what your goal is.”

So what’s White Fatigue? It’s a wearying of potential allies in the fight against racism. Flynn says white fatigue happens to people who understand that racism is wrong, but struggle to understand institutional racism, which is much more challenging than the “do unto others, treat each other equally” solution for individual racism. Racism is defined by sociologists as a system of advantage based on race. So Flynn says “we have to recognize we are all caught up in this system, I as a black man, you as a white woman, we are all caught up in a system that was running long before we were born. Unfortunately, it is our yoke to deal with.” And when students learn this, they find it’s bigger than they ever thought it could be.

Later in May on the Friday Forum, we continue this conversation with Dr. Flynn, and begin to look at our roles in what he hopes will someday be a “post-racist America.”