Four Ways for White People to Challenge White Apathy

BY BR. KEN HOMAN, S.J. | June 1, 2020

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly stated, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…” This moderation is often born of an apathy that must be overcome in order to move toward racial justice. Below are four ways to challenge that apathy:

1. Confronting your own apathy

Our own apathy often takes two forms: lazy answers and inaction. When discussing racial justice, lazy answers often come to the fore. These answers attempt to oversimplify histories and dismiss the realities of people’s lives. They might include things like “We just need to get along” or “Naming things racist just stokes division.” I call these answers lazy because they don’t require any work from us. They maintain our privilege and leave the burden of racial justice to communities of color. While they speak of moderation and neutrality, they in fact maintain oppression.

These lazy answers lead to inaction, shirking the burden of justice. If our commitment to racial justice does not require concrete steps, then it is apathetic. Moreover, the work of being an anti-racist is not done by finding an easy answer or quickly accomplishable task. It is an ongoing transformative experience, much like faith itself. Our actions might be a variety of activities—reading, learning, advocating, demonstrating—but whatever it is should challenge us to greater depth.

white people challenge white apathy

2. Invite a friend to challenge your apathy together

Find a white friend and hold each other accountable. This accountability might mean joining a civil rights organization to learn more, committing to a reading group, or participating in a day of advocacy together. Undoing racism is a long-term commitment, and the support of a friend is vital for processing and learning. It’s important to remember, however, not to put the onus of responsibility on your friends, particularly friends of color.

3. Challenge racist myths

Racist myths rely on the lazy answers. Challenging them can be exceptionally difficult because it often requires confronting broader narratives that affirm privilege. Racial wealth disparities do not exist because the American Dream failed or some races didn’t work hard enough—it exists because of the racism built into our political and economic systems. These myths, then, are exceptionally dangerous because of the way in which they uphold apathy. For example, you might run into people who say, “Sure, there’s injustice, but what about black-on-black crime?” This question was popularized by white supremacists. They hoped to discredit understandings of systematic racism and decrease empathy for Black communities by making Black individuals seem inherently violent. The reality is that crime primarily occurs within communities. White-on-white violent crime is almost identical to black-on-black. The biggest differences are related to prosecution and sentencing—crimes committed against white people are punished more harshly than those committed against Black individuals.

white people challenge white apathy

4. Pray

In 1967, then-Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe critiqued American Jesuits* for failing to know or pray with individuals and communities of color. This failure is certainly true of many white Jesuits and many white Catholics today. Prayer—our binding relationship with God and our neighbors—must fundamentally shake us from our apathy. The Lord hears the cry of the oppressed, but do we? We must open our hearts to the burning of the Holy Spirit. We might join communities of color in prayer, perhaps requiring us to learn new languages, customs, or styles of liturgy. When we lift up the voices of faith leaders, we can make explicit efforts to recognize faith leaders of color.

One of the deep challenges of racism is the way in which it connects to so many other injustices—environmental degradation, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and sexism to name only a few. Confronting our apathy regarding racism should urge us to confront our apathy regarding other unjust systems, and vice-versa. These four steps are starting places for addressing each of these systems. If it does not, then we must again reevaluate that apathy.

*Content warning: This piece contains racialized language used in a historical context.

5 replies
  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Human beings are made in the image and likeness of the divine – declare Holy Scriptures.

  2. Dean Gray
    Dean Gray says:

    I have travelled many countries globally and have spoken to people from all different ages/gender/race and creed, it all stems down to an individual that have had certain problems in there lives. What I did learn in certain countries, children are not racist instead they imitate there surroundings and what the media/T.V/trends show at the time in a way activating thoughts and possible actions they lead to hate/racism. We are not born racist nor is it past on this dispels the inherent racism that saying is over used and is nothing more than signalling. But the question is why should certain minorities or individuals suffer from something which they were never apart of, why are white people getting involved in something that doesn’t happen to them apparently and trying to intervene in what they know nothing about just for a bit of credit to look good to there peers. I have spoken to people and most find it insulting that white people are trying to speak for them when they have a voice of there own it’s very hypocritical. I carry a very old diary with me when I travel and speak it’s from a ancestor that helped free slaves in Haiti, in the passages there was a part written that after fighting off the French the Haitian people were afraid of the white man but through time they can look in to the eyes of a white man and see we are not all the same and can treat others with compassion ( I’m not allowed to type the exact passage ) . Too this day my family still visits Haiti when possible although things aren’t too good there. At the end of the day it’s morally wrong to put a whole race under the same umbrella, it always All and never a few or some remember that next time. An example a ball goes through a window and a Asian did it, do I now accuse and hold past and future generations of Asians accountable for every ball hit through a window starting centuries ago ? no I don’t I might say it does happen but only some do it.

    • Helgi
      Helgi says:

      I agree. the person that wrote this article is there a type of person that doesn’t admit that they are racist, despite the fact they are the most vocally racist. they attempt to speak on behalf of others people having despite never having met the people they they try to talk for they don’t truly care about despite what they saying I have a saying “the opposite of racism is apathy of race the opposite of sexism is apathy of gender”

  3. Anti apathy
    Anti apathy says:

    So pathetic. Black victimization is FAKE. You sir are certainly aware of THAT. Blacks commit more than 9 out of 10 acts of violence that cross racial lines in America – over 350,000 white victims every year! Blacks, as a percentage of the US population, they are America’s #1 crime race (over 8,000 blacks males arrested every day). Blacks are the only race at war with the police; the only race that loot stores; the only race that gets to demonize another race – white people. No people have ever got more simply and solely b/c of the color of their than American blacks. Had enough of their FAKE victimization. You should be ashamed of yourself for peddling this guilt-tripping nonsense!


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