How “Not All White People” Became an Assault on All Black People
When Black people discuss racism, there’s usually at least one commenter who says, “not all White people,” as if they’re telling you something special, something redeeming. White people who use this phrase attempt to undermine a credible claim of racism to lessen it. “A common form of derailment is to dismiss or discredit what someone is trying to say by commenting on how they are saying it.”
Not all White people, not all men, and not all cops are childish deflections from the very real problems our society faces — the good doesn’t redeem the bad. Abolitionists like Anthony Benezet don’t make up for Madame LaLaurie, a White woman so cruel that her behavior disgusted other slaveowners. Unfortunately, the good people in this world don’t make up for the bad, and insisting they do is “gaslighting.”
So, when I wrote a historical article about White people feeding Black babies to alligators in southern swamps, the “not all White people” brigade showed up in an attempt to undermine the story. Using newspaper articles from the Library of Congress, I discovered some stories that, while difficult to read, were essential for historical accuracy. The cruelty I found and reported demonstrated the consequences of American racism — the dehumanization of Black people. A 1890 edition of The Roanoke Times and a 1902 article written in The St. Louis Republic provided context for this story. How does saying “not all White people” change anything about America’s racist past? It doesn’t.
Sometimes it feels like White people want Black people to redeem them as if us agreeing that “not all White people” participated in violent, racist acts makes racism less real or more tolerable. It doesn’t. “Not all White people” is something White people may tell themselves to make themselves feel better. But, when they say “not all White people” to Black people, it comes off as dismissive and condescending.
In 1830, White people burned a Black man named Jerry alive. Why does anyone believe that saying “not all White people” lessons the blow? On May 19, 1918, a Black pregnant woman named Mary Turner publicly mourned her husband’s lynching…