September 21, 2018
I had a realization of why it’s so hard for people, especially white people, to deal with the reality of racism. It’s because we have a stock image of who the racist is. It’s that sociopathic redneck waving a Confederate battle flag or Nazi skinned who screams about sending non-white people “back to where they came from!” Wrong. The racist is the person reading this (and writing it). It’s not the Klansman that is the problem. As Pogo Possum once said, “I have seen the enemy and it is us.”
It’s another example of binary thinking. It’s so easy to think of racists as “bad” people and therefore we’re the good people. It gets us off the hook of our own internalized and unchecked racism. So let’s deal with this here and now.
We’re talking about two kind of racists here. The first is our cartoon character white supremacist who actively believes racism is a good thing. I’ve spent 30 years interviewing these people and believe me, they are proud to be identified as racist. Thirty years ago they’d go on Geraldo and Oprah and rant about preserving the white race. Now they are rallying at alt-right gatherings, blathering about “European chauvinism” and “Western supremacy.”
The other type of racist is the rest of us. We honestly believe racism is wrong but we have internalized the basic values of white supremacy. It could be something as a basic idea of what a “real American” looks like. Or it could be the impulse to clutch your purse when a black man is walking by. Research on implicit bias has shown how deeply this unexamined racism runs. It manifests in hiring decisions and picking the candidate who just seems a “better fit,” as well as when police officers pull the trigger because they perceive a “threat” that is subconsciously influenced by the color of someone’s skin.
I need to say this implicit bias also encompasses those who are actively anti-racist in their orientation. I was dropping off my daughter at pre-school. There was an African-American teenage boy in a hoodie on the sidewalk, staring at his phone. “Oh, what’s up with this?” I thought. I walked my daughter quickly past him. Turns out he was waiting for the school bus and I hated myself for the racist impulse, wondering if he picked up on my “white fear.” My wife was watching Cozy play a game on the iPad and noticing how she routinely picked the blonde white girl avatars, leaving the brown and black characters unselected. Research has shown us how early kids pick up on these messages, in homes with black or (in our case) brown parents. The white doll is more valued than the black doll, because black is “bad.”
Whenever white people say, “Well, minorities can be racist, too!” (as if to say it’s OK that I’m racist because they are), I like to tell them, “Yes, but not in the way you think.” Research shows that they value whiteness over their own racial group. They’ve internalized the same white supremacist ideas that whites have. Just look at who the media promotes as “beautiful” in the minority communities. The lighter the skin, the better. Latina beauty magazines still advertise skin lightening creams. Barak Obama got a lot farther then Jesse Jackson in politics and many believed it was because Jackson was “too black.” I would ask my students the question, if love is blind, why do more interracial marriages have a black husband and a white wife than the opposite? Because black men have been taught to value white women just as white men have. It’s all rooted in the white supremacist belief that white is better. Everyone is infected with racism. Malcolm X called it out it 55 years ago and we’re still wrestling with it now.
Every time a white person says, “I’m not a racist, but…” it’s always fun to call them out on their obvious racism. But maybe that should be a moment of self reflection instead of another “us vs. them” binary. You might not have said that, but I know you’ve thought that. Just yesterday a black woman threw some liter out of her car window, and I thought, “Oh, black people.” I’m admitting that. I had a friend who recently told me that he was caught off guard by his impulse to immediately judge a white woman with biracial children. I wanted to tell him I’ve done the exact same thing.
It’s not us and them. Just us. Our county was built on racism. All men were not created equal based on the “Godly” laws of our founding fathers. Our story is rooted in genocide, slavery, and systematic exclusion. Our national anthem was written by an anti-abolitionist slave owner. The state I live in, Oregon, was founded as a “white only” state. You might want to pretend we live in a “post-racial” society (“But y’all had Obama!”), but these sins run right to the marrow of our bones. We can’t talk about “racists” as if they are separate from us. Donald Trump is a racist and so am I.
We are racist. Let’s fix it now.