Our simplistic definition of racism—as intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals—engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem and that our learning is thus complete.Robin DiAngelo
I am racist.
Even writing that fills me with dread, as if I’m saying the most profoundly taboo and evil thing. As if I am evil for thinking it, much less writing it. As if society will immediately and comprehensively shun me for my wickedness. It’s an emotional and visceral feeling in any way associating myself with that word. And publishing it on my blog, holy shit. There’s a part of me that is terrified to do so.
But it’s true.
Before we go too far down this road, let’s take a moment to walk through some language here, as these words are important:
All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it. If I am aware that a social group exists, I will have gained information about that group from the society around me. This information helps me make sense of the group from my cultural framework.
Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence.
When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.
Racism is a system, not an event. I know I participate in racism, not because I do so intentionally (I try not to), but because I’m a white man, and the benefactor of this system. I have been given opportunities that others–minorities, women–have not, whether or not I know or appreciate which opportunities those were. It feels to me like I earned everything I have, but I know that I did so within a system that works intentionally behind the scenes to privilege me and those who look like me over those who don’t.
And I am complicit in this system. It advantages me, and I take full advantage. Everywhere I go, I feel a sense of belonging, racially. Every business meeting, I belong. Every family outing, my family and I interact predominantly with people who look like us. The vast majority of the places I go, it goes without saying that I should be there. And I take advantage of this. My uninterrupted comfort enables me to attain things that I otherwise wouldn’t, if I were in situations where I was racially uncomfortable.
I’m so oblivious to race, as a white man, that it rarely occurs to me that it might be an issue for others. I have thought to myself, “racism is a non-issue for me, because I treat all people the same.” But I have the luxury of thinking that I treat all people the same, only because I am treated the same by all people. This is a perspective limited to white people, I’m learning. Even though racial equality has seemed like the obvious default for so long, and I’ve thought I was living in accordance with that standard and treating all people with the same compassion, I’m learning that non-white people had a very different experience of me.
It’s obvious, I’ve learned, to those people of color around me, that I don’t treat all people the same. It’s also obvious to them that I can’t, because our society is built on racism, and I am a product of that society. There’s something in the water. As a white person (never mind a man), it’s inevitable and unavoidable that I participate in racism to one degree or another.
So why am I so scared to talk about it?
Robin DiAngelo, in the eye opening book White Fragility, which I finished in a day last week and now feel is a must-read for white people, dissects the many under the radar cultural mechanisms that I, as a white person, have installed in order to maintain power, one of the post insidious of which is, per the title, an inability to discuss my own race or racism without conflating it with segregation, lynching and white hoods. I have been conditioned to believe, these atrocities in mind, that racism is evil, and those who perpetrate it are immoral people. Because of this culturally reinforced belief, up until recently I have been unwilling to entertain any suggestion to my own racism, because to do so would be admitting that I am an evil person. I know I am not an evil person, but if accused with racism or white privilege I nevertheless have a kneejerk reaction, culturally implanted in me by a racist society over 35 years, to dissociate from both.
This defense mechanism keeps me blind, and being blind keeps me, as a white person, in power. It ensures I don’t hear valid feedback on my own racism, and therefore that I don’t change. The society as it stands benefits me at the cost of my brothers and sisters of color, so my inability to learn or change, regardless of its origins, is a problem. That is my complicity in racism.
From the book:
White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.
Racism today still includes evil deeds and atrocities. We are not past that, not by a long shot. But racism also includes millions of small things, perpetrated every day by every white person in America, which build on each other to systematically oppress those who are not white and maintain our position. If you are white, no matter how progressive your views and how certain you are that you are part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.
We must be willing to look deeply at our own racism, and the specific ways it manifests in our life and our actions, and truly own it, if we ever hope to change them.
We cannot claim neutrality in this battle. We are on the winning side, claiming that there is no conflict and those we’re beating are simply misinformed. And our racist society is so deeply engrained that that viewpoint is somehow sustainable, despite innumerable attempts by people of color to point out our hypocrisy.
I am racist.
Still gives me shivers to publish that, still have an instinct that I’ll be shunned the world over.
It’s uncomfortable to talk about race and racism, and even more so to admit my complicity in the problem. But nothing will change until I admit there’s a problem, and then face the accompanying discomfort and confront my racism with an open mind.
I am racist. And I’m doing the work of becoming less so. If you want to do the work too, I suggest buying White Fragility as a starting point.