I am racist and so are you

I’ve written about white privilege on this blog in the past, and I don’t plan on stopping. The first time I was introduced to the concept was in college, in a speech given by Tim Wise. (The address he gave us was a lot like this one.) Tim talked about privilege as a pathology, a mental dysfunction that causes white folks to be afraid of others and worry about what’s coming for our status. Whether we like it or not, this pathology comes for all of us, sucking us into situations where we put the security of our privilege in front of the well being of our friends, neighbors, family, and, mostly, people we don’t know.

Tim’s words lit a fire in me, one that would lead me to seek out more voices thinking about whiteness, racism, and white privilege over the next decade and change. It also helped me change how I saw my classmates, and understood conversations about race happening on our campus. It was around then I started to grok what I now understand to be a Truth of our age: There’s no such thing as a white person who isn’t racist.

My grandparents were racist — some more obviously so; my parents, both racist; my wife, racist; my brother, racist; my wife’s parents, racists; my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, acquaintances, co-workers past, present, and future: all of us white, all of us racist. I love them all. Some of them are in interracial relationships, many of us carried signs and marched in the streets, or wrote letters to our city, state, and federal officials this week. Doesn’t matter, we’re all still racist!

We’re racist because we represent the default power group in a white supremacist society. American capitalism, American politics, and the workaday experience of our lives were designed, supported, and perpetuated by white people around our interests often at the expense of, or at least disregard for, others. A good example of this is how every time a white person gets called racist, they take offense to it, like you accused them or serial murder or being a member of the KKK. It’s not like that!

You can be racist just by going to work and not speaking up your colleague does something more obviously racist. It’s a racist and privileged position of power to exist in that environment and plausibly not know the thing your colleague said was racist.

What do we do about that? One thing we can all do is stop taking offense when someone calls us racist. When someone says a thing you did, said, or witnessed was racist, they’re expressing their experience, trauma, and pain. By taking offense and denying them, we’re denying all of that and in the process, denying their humanity.

Another thing we can do is start reading our history. We need to stop assuming everything we learned in our high school history books was true, complete, and accurate. There were several Twitter recently asking how many people in their network learned about Tulsa in school. It was almost unanimous across different threads: Very few people learned about the largest racially motivated massacre in American history. Twitter polls are not scientific but the results are striking: Out of 5449 votes, about 376 said yes. A sea of “no” in replies. 366 votes, 71 said yes. 27,358 votes, 1,423 yes.

Another thing we didn’t learn in school was red lining. Sure we read Raisin in the Sun, but what we didn’t learn is it wasn’t just White folks in the Chicago suburbs denying Black folks access to the franchise of homeonwership. The Federal Housing Administrion played a massive role, too, by drawing lines around their neighborhoods, coloring them in red, and flagging to banks that people in their communities shouldn’t be given loans.

The curriculum are schools are made to teach is not giving us the basics, and our teachers are in a bind where events like Black Wall Street compete with the hegemonic view of the basics of our history in a short amount of time. Many Black families teach their kids about events like these because they know the schools aren’t. It’s a civic responsibility to fill in those gaps and make sure we know them, and that our kids know them.

We can also demand change. Call our elected officials and demand they recognize racism across our states and local communities and take direct action to address it. We need to become abolitionists, dedicated to tearing down the systems that unjustly corner and disproportionately affect our Black and Brown siblings.

Finally, we need to recognize that it’s not over. It’ll never be over and we need to carry that with us until the day we die.


2 responses to “I am racist and so are you”

  1. A good example of this is how every time a white person gets called racist, they take offense to it, like you accused them or serial murder or being a member of the KKK. It’s not like that!

    I think with many diasporas, that’s true, but for many Americans who haven’t had the same educational experience, it isn’t. They were taught a different meaning of the word.

    MLK – and media coverage after him – made “racist” synonymous with Lester Maddox, KKK members, Bull Connor, Jim Crow, or a person caught saying racial epithets. I’d argue that there was a deliberate effort to make those faces, and their clubs and burning crosses the representatives of American racism, so that other parts of the US could reject that ideology they saw on the news.

    The academic definition is still new to many people, and we end up arguing and talking about who the label should be applied to instead of (as you wrote about here) the definition of the label.

    I like aspiring to being anti-racists, or abolitionists. We need another term for what people should aspire not to be – for if racist is to apply to so many in the ongoing future, I think we need a term to replace its historic popular usage.

    • I woulnd’t say I was taught this definition and understanding of race and racism. As I say in the post, I came to this understanding over time and after educating myself and I don’t think that work will ever be “finished.” I do agree that our education curriculum shouldn’t use MLK’s words or movement to define what is and isn’t representative of racism. It is a sprawling, evolving, and systemic disease in our society.

      That’s why we need to educate ourselves about racism as an institutionalized cancer that affects our individuals and entire communities every day, work to better understand our role in supporting that system, and encourage others in our social circles to do the same. The same system that empowers White people to be offended when they’re called racist for telling a joke also empowers racist extremists and terrorists like the KKK.

      Though it seems Martin Luther King’s words can be wrenched to fit basically any situation or position anybody wants to proffer these days, I often think about the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, specifically where he wrote:

      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; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

      It’s on us White folks to call each other out and see that racist behaviors big and small are deeply rooted in the same system of oppression. At a bare minimum it’s on us not to push that responsibility off onto our Black friends, co-workers, neighbors etc. We need to work toward a world where we hold ourselves responsible for the harm we cause to others.

      To begin using an alternative term for these lesser racist behaviors would be to draw lines between good or acceptable kinds of not-racism and bad or harmful real-racism. All racism is bad. All racism is harmful. All racism is racism. That’s why we need to do the work of educating ourselves and identifying ourselves as part of the problem. We White folks benefit from racist traditions, institutions, and cultural norms. Maybe not every day, some of us may benefit from it more than others. Regardless, it’s on us to acknowledge our role and how we can work to dismantle that system. To do anything less is to be the exact white moderate who asks the oppressed to wait indefinitely for a more convenient season that will never come.

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