There are a lot of well-meaning people who’s well-meaning actions just make things worse. I’ve certainly been one of those people. Portland is filled with self-proclaimed anti-racists who believe that by smashing windows and setting trashcans on fire, they are somehow making black lives matter. Have they bothered even asking any of these black lives if this is a good strategy? The people of color that I’ve talked to see is it as purely white performance. Now working on policies that help people of color buy homes and operate local businesses, that helps. A lot.
My challenge to anti-racist activists, of which I am one, is to take a break from chasing down neo-Nazis and Proud Boys, and take a look in the mirror. Until we start on the long process to undo our own internalized white supremacy, we will be blind to the racial trauma we cause while we’re chanting “Black lives matter!” There is a simple sociological formula that goes like this:
Internalized white supremacy
In 2021, still, we all learn various versions of “white is normal and better” lessons. That seeps into our subconscious where it lives as implicit bias and then emerges as micro-aggresions (a clutched purse, an off-handed comment, a joke that shouldn’t have been told). And that small thing lands as another wounding message to people of color that they are still not full members in this society. And the endless barrage of those “micro-assaults” become cumulative trauma. And that’s why BIPOC folks were in the streets in 2020, because enough was enough.
As I’ve written in this blog, 2021 has provided a great opportunity to move inwards from the barricades as Delta, and now Omicron, send us back into our shelters. Mindfulness and meditation give us strategies to interrupt our hard-learned tendencies to act in racist ways, even while we lecture others against their racism. I had a great week training with the Center for Equity and Inclusion here and Portland and consumed Mindful of Race by Ruth King. Both had huge impacts on how I move through the world as a white person.
King, a Buddhist woman of color, offers useful strategies to manage those situations that can cause racial distress. It could be finding yourself in an uncomfortable conversation with a Trump-loving uncle who wants to make America white again, or, on the other side, those white fragility moments when a person of color is taking apart your liberalness as just a vacant act of wokeness. One of her mindfulness strategies, that goes by the acronym “RAIN,” has been helpful for me in not only navigating my racial interactions, but also being more present in my relationship with my wife. It works like this:
The “R” stands for recognize. A big part mindfulness is paying attention to our emotional states as things to be observed. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, where is it? Is it a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach or an angry tension in the middle of your forehead. Recognize it. “There’s that feeling. Hello again. I see you there.”
A is for allow. Buddhists teach us that everything is temporary, especially our emotions. Instead of letting them control us, let them float past, like a cloud. Accepting impermanence (“anitya” in Sanskrit) allows us to not, as U2 once perfectly sang, get stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of. So in those racially tense moments, we can see it and then remind ourselves that they will be in the rearview mirror shortly, so hold off on any emotionally driven impulses (including micro-aggressions).
I is for Investigate. Mindfulness teaches us to be curious about our thoughts. Where did this discomfort come from? Could it be projection, or due to a lack of true reflection? Could it be rooted in mis-learned lessons from our childhood? Maybe it’s those implicit biases we all hold.
And finally, the “N” is for nurture. What do you need right now to pass through this moment without adding to the racial harm? And what do others need to address their harm? It could be developing a strategy to address a problematic policy or person, or it could be a hug and a short walk around the block to calm down.
At the root of King’s teaching is kindness. Kindness to ourselves and to those traumatized by racism, and, yes, kindness to those who perpetrate racism in the world. They, like us and as us, are products of this racist society and capable of becoming forces for racial healing themselves. The Buddhist principles of racial mindfulness might be a tough sell to a black clad 20-year-old who thinks vandalizing a police station somehow helps black people, but that 20-year-old has the capacity for personal transformation and the ability to participate in stopping the harm so there can be true racial healing.
You gotta admit, “Make America Great Again” was a brilliant slogan. Besides doubling as a handy acronym (MAGA!), it was a “politically correct” way of masking the deep racism of Trump supporters who wanted to make America Jim Crow America again. Since Trump left office, Trump supporters in 47 states have introduced or passed voter suppression laws. (Shout out to my ass backwards home state, Georgia!) MAGA fit on hats, t-shirts, and hashtags and immediately conveyed where the supporter stood on transgender bathrooms, racial equity, and the 2020 election. Who came up with this perfect (if fascistic) slogan?
Speaking of “political correctness,” there’s a perfect example of how the left has a language problem. All political correctness is is an attempt to be mindful of the way words and practices marginalize and hurt people in our community. If African-Americans what to be referred to as people of color instead of “colored people,” show them the basic respect of doing it without whining. Those folks have been through some shit! But truth be told, nobody wants to be “corrected.” Ugh. And bothered about getting the he/she thing wrong? A recent study found that nearly 42% of non-binary and transgender youth attempted suicide. By just using a person’s preferred pronoun, you might save a life. Suck it up, snowflake! But there is a cottage industry dedicated to bitching about political correctness as if it was some grand conspiracy to suppress your first amendment right to be an asshole. Your constitutional right to be an asshole remains sacred and defended by both the Supreme Court and the liberal ACLU.
The progressive movement is full of terms, phrases, and slogans that get at the depth of inequity in our society and are intended to start conversations and affect change to transform America into a nation where there truly is liberty and justice for all. But these turns of phrase also trigger right wing trolls and news networks. Over 4 million people watch white supremacist Tucker Carlson each night. If something bothers him, it becomes an instant internet meme spread far and wide by the “proud” boys that want to make America 1950 again. Some of these slogans (and the responses by people who don’t take the time to understand them) include:
Black Lives Matter (“All lives matter!” – Or as my father tried to tell me, “Black Lives Matter means white lives don’t matter.” And yes, he’s a Trumpie.)
Defund the Police (“These anarchists just want criminals to run free!”)
Toxic Masculinity (“Masculinity built this nation!”)
Implicit Bias (“Don’t tell me I’m biased, I have a black cousin!”)
White Privilege (“I’m not privileged. I lived in a car!”)
Micro-aggression (“It’s MICRO! Get over it, libtard! Jeez, you can’t even make a joke anymore.)
And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” line that became adopted by the not-too-bright Trump base as a badge of honor. If Clinton had tried to be less cutesy and just said, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the cesspool of bigots,” you probably wouldn’t have seen an army of white people with “I’m a bigot!” T-shirts at Trump rallies. (Wait, I may have to rethink that.)
Sometimes the left’s slogans seem as if they were penned by right-wing agent provocateurs. Case in point, ACAB – “All Cops Are Bastards.” Now I understand that provocative slogan is meant to highlight the tendency in the policing world to prevent officers from addressing the systemic racism that has left countless George Floyd’s dead in the streets. (Police unions, I’m looking at you.) But I personally know many police officers, including BIPOC police officers, who desperately want to infuse policing with social justice values. Let’s not forget that several police officers testified for the prosecution in the trial of George Floyd’s uniformed killer. Are all black cops bastards? Are are all women cops bastards? The average woman who sees a cop carting off the man who assaulted her probably doesn’t spray paint ACAB on local businesses.
Anecdote: In 1987, my roommate and I called 911 in Atlanta. Yuppie ninjas had kicked in our apartment door and we’re going to attack us with num-chucks. Our call the the police scared them off but I had to turn off the music we were blasting before the cops arrived; NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” True story.
Perhaps the best example of this is the term, white fragility, which derives from Robin DiAngleo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. The book is simply about the defensiveness that white people express when you alert them to the reality of racism. They say silly things, like “I was raised to be colorblind” (You weren’t) and “I can’t be racist, I voted for Obama! (You can). The innovative text is required reading in my Diversity class and has sparked insightful discussions among both white and non-white students. It was a best seller among people who read books and rose back to the top of the charts during the churning summer of 2020.
However, bring up the concept of white fragility to white people who haven’t read the book or have no interest in reading any book about racism, and you get a lot of, well, fragility. For easy reference, watch the June 2020 interview DiAngelo did with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. A seemingly interested Fallon allows DiAngelo to explain that all she is trying to do is ask white people to act with humility and grace and address their own internalized white supremacy. The YouTube video’s 27,000 downvotes sets up the 14,000 comments by fragile white people, accusing DiAngleo of racism herself. “The left: Let’s solve racism with more racism” (John Spinelli) “If ‘self-hatred’ was a person, it’d be Robin DiAngelo” (Jack) “This is what happens when you make a career out of gaslighting.” (SWJobson) Each comment perfectly proves DiAngelo’s central thesis about white fragility. Since “fragility” is feminized in our culture, there’s a macho pushback against it. The term “fragility” literally causes men to become fragile.
The “anti-woke” crowd is pretty good with staying on point. From “Drain the swamp!” to “Stop the steal,” it feels like the right has a high-power Madison Avenue team coining their slogans. What if the left had their own progressive Don Draper, instead of the Antifa Darren Stevens is who pens confrontational taglines on cardboard signs? (How about MCAB? Many Cops Are Bastards! Or what about BLMT? Black Lives Matter, Too!) I mean, whatever intern came up with “Stop Asian Hate” should be run out of the slogan business. “What have you got on your resume? Stop Asian hate. So just who do Asians hate and why should they stop? Come back kid when you’ve got something that makes sense.”
I generally loathe advertising, but we’re in a rut here. It’s time to rebrand white fragility. Maybe “I’m Not A Racist Freak Out Syndrome.” Or how about, “I’m Not A Racist But Those People Scare Me Dysphoria.” I don’t know. I’m a sociologist, not a marketing director. We got close to it with “Pro Choice,” but they beat our pants off with “Pro Life.” There’s gotta be better verbiage that doesn’t drive every Karen and Tucker into a “That’s reverse racism!!” spasm-fest.
The reality is these issues are more complex than a handy slogan could capture. They are nuanced and contextual and all the things that scare superficial thinkers that still think “pro-black” means “anti-white.” In my trainings, we get into the weeds, but it takes me an hour just to define the terms. You can’t get all the bullet points of my training on internalized white supremacy on a street banner let alone a bumpersticker.
So let’s pass the beanie and take up a collection to hire a radical marketing genius to help make America not horrible again.
It’s sort of pointless to argue whether or not Donald Trump is a racist. His lifetime record of words and deeds proves it. Saturday night he rambled on about how is white crowd in Minnesota had “good genes.” He can pimp out Herschel Walker (who has had his fair share of blows to the head), or suddenly throw $13 billion at Puerto Rico, but 99% of black and brown people know what’s up. The Trump loyalists who don’t think he’s a racist are not going to be convinced by me that he is. Anyone with an a IQ over 80 and a minimal understanding of twentieth century history understands what’s happening in America right now.
And we don’t have to go all the way back to Germany in the 1930s to see the populist swing to authoritarianism returning. Trump is straight up Nixon ’68, revisiting the racist “southern strategy” as he madly tweets at “suburban housewives” that black people (and Antifa!) are coming to destroy their bucolic worlds. The fear mongering worked for Nixon as race riots gripped American cityscapes. Things are different in 2020. The suburbs are different and most of those “housewives” are the primary breadwinners in their families. I doubt Mr. “Grab ‘em by the pussy” and his racist drumbeating is going to frighten them more than COVID-19 killing their children.
So then what to do? How do we deprive this racist lover of dictators of his oxygen? How do we kill the threat of Donald Trump to America?
It will be our veterans that show us the way
The absolute key to this racial mess is understanding the nature of trauma. Liberals and conservatives, antifascists and “patriots” all have a basic understanding of trauma. So here’s how it works.
Step One: Veterans – When was the last time we heard of someone coming back from a war zone and being spit on? We don’t do that anymore. Even hard core anti-war left wingers would never even think of doing that. My father used to joke about torturing a “shell shocked” Korean War vet who was his high school teachers in the 1950s. In the 1970s, tweaked Vietnam vets were the subject of derision. “Dude’s in his own private ‘Nam.” What changed?
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a very real and life-lasting cognitive condition. Because of the suffering and sacrifice of a lot of vets, we understand how acute trauma, like getting shot at, alters the brain. And we learned that trauma can lie dormant and be triggered by something random, like fireworks going off on the 4th of July. In 1998, I went to a special screening of Saving Private Ryan that honored surviving WWII vets. The opening scenes of the Normandy landing had men in their seventies convulsing like they were back on that beach 54 years prior. They nearly had to stop the film.
We’ve learned that PTSD has a whole host of ripple effects, like depression, substance abuse, and elevated suicide rates. That’s why there is near consensus on helping our vets heal instead of adding to their trauma.
Step Two: Rape victims – Rape is epidemic in our society. Depending on the measure, as many as one and four women in this country will be sexually assaulted at least once. Rape knows no political boundaries, no race or even age. We exist in a rape culture which traumatizes women with sexual violence and the looming threat of sexual violence. Even typing the word rape will traumatize some of the women reading this. I was lecturing about rape statistics in my criminology class at the University of Oregon and a young woman burst into tears and left the class, never to return. I re-traumatized her without even trying. It’s the impact not the intent.
We also have a mountain of research that shows rape victims suffer from PTSD just like our veterans do. The difference is women don’t walk off the battlefield. America is the battlefield, with the next potential attack just around the corner, or, more likely, in the next room. And having entertainment, like Game of Thrones, that turns rape into spectacle and a president who brags about his sexual assaults doesn’t help.
Even the most right-wing asshole dude has a mother or a sister or a daughter or a favorite teacher or a lover who has been wounded by sexual violence. Just like he would never tell an Afghan war vet to “just get over it,” it would be hard to imagine he would tell his wounded rape victim to “just get over it.” Even assholes have hearts.
Step Three: People of Color – I know there are white people who think racism magically ended in 1865, or 1964, or 2008 when Obama was elected. But anyone who has watched the 8 minute and 46 second execution of George Floyd knows that the trauma of racism continues and is a daily reality for people of color. Seeing grown black men, weeping on live TV, begging for black lives to matter was a wake up call for many white people.
Think of the cumulative trauma that results from slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, mass incarceration during the phony “War on Drugs,” redlining, educational discrimination, white flight, police violence, and on and on. Where is the opportunity to heal when the traumatizing impacts of racism are still coming, while white people chant, “just get over it”?
Black, brown, Asian, and indigenous people are marginalized in ways that are often completely invisible to white people. It could be a simple micro-aggression (“So, what are you?”) or a lack of representation (How many black male teachers have you had?). The rising rate of hate crimes based on race is the icing and Trump’s attacks on black athletes as “sons of bitches” are the cherries on top.
If we can understand the trauma of veterans and rape victims, why can’t we understand the trauma of racism victims? As a dude on American Ninja Warriors recently said, “Ignoring race doesn’t fix racism.”
An embarrassing story about myself
Two years ago I was taking my daughter, Cozy, to her preschool. I got there early and saw a young African-American male sitting on the steps to the school. His hood was up and he was on his phone. Something ticked in my head, that said, “Danger Will Robinson!” so I took Cozy in a different door, giving the young man a wide berth.
When I came back out, I saw him getting on a school bus, doing what we want every teenager should to be doing. The preschool steps were his bus stop. I felt incredibly embarrassed about my assumption and as he got on the bus, he shot me a look that I will never forget. It said, “What do I have to do? I’m going to school and you still think I’m a thug.” I had wounded him and his day was just starting.
What happened? I grew up in racist America which means I internalized white supremacy, including the belief that black men are threats to our safety. That internalized white supremacy turned into implicit bias, that gut feeling that had me choose to walk in a different door. That young man experienced that as a micro-aggression, he knew I was walking in the far door because he was black. And that micro-aggression was a small but meaningful traumatizing event. Instead of helping him to heal, I gave him YET ANOTHER reminder that being black in America is to be marginalized. I wounded him. And I’m sure there were plenty more woundings that followed that day.
Our president thinks discussing concepts like internalized white supremacy, implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and racial trauma are anti-American. He’s come out hard against the New York Times 1619 Project that tries to undo the whitewashing we’ve done on the history and impact of slavery on America. He wants to institute some Orwellian “patriotic education” curriculum to indoctrinate kids back into the white washing. (School curriculums are mandated on the state level, so he’s just playing to his racist base, again.) I’m waiting for Trump to sign an executive order replacing Black History Month with Slave Owners Had Good Genes Month.
If “All lives matter,” then black lives matter. That’s how words work.
The road out of this backsliding moment is to talk to white people about trauma and healing. If they can understand the experience of veterans and rape victims with PTSD, they can understand the traumatizing impacts of racism and marginalization. If it makes sense that a wounded warrior might be triggered by firecrackers or a rape victim might be re-traumatized by another news report of a sexual assault, than a white person should be able to understand the cumulative impact of another unarmed black person who was killed by the police on black people in general. In 2020, it seems like black lives just don’t matter yet.
Except for sociopaths (and I understand the ranks of neo-Nazis and “Pro-Trump” activists have plenty of those folks), all human beings are capable of empathy. I’ve written about how my road from white supremacist kid from a Klan town to anti-racist educator started with the recognition of how I traumatized a black janitor in my freshman dorm at Oxford College by ripping up a book by Martin Luther King, Jr. and throwing it in the toilet. Good people don’t want to cause trauma. Good people want to help people to heal from their wounds.
The problem is that white people are so damn fragile. They run away from the term “racist,” thinking it only applies to cross-burning Klansmen. We’ve all internalized white supremacy, full stop. Myself included. The switch has to flick from, “I’m not a racist!” to, “I am racist but I want to reduce the harm that’s caused. How can I help the healing?” I think when white people understand the depth and length of racial trauma, they will want to be helpers instead of hurters. Take down your Confederate flag and unclench your white fist into an open hand.
Donald Trump has cast himself as the savior of white America. It might work. There are are still a lot of anxious white people that can’t handle a black football player who cares about justice, let alone people taking to streets, demanding to dismantle racist institutions. Trump’s racism has been unleashed in his desperate eleventh hour attempt to salvage the train wreck of his presidency. Perhaps calm conversations about the wounding racism has caused to people we care about can end his reign of injury.
One of my weirdest media moments was one of my live CNN interviews. It was August 12, 2017 after the mayhem of the alt right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one anti-racist activist dead. President Trump had said there were “fine people on both sides of the conflict,” equating the Neo-Nazis, who had organized the “Unite the Right” rally, with the counter protestors. I was brought on to do the usual “state of hate” analysis. I must have been too concise in my answers, leaving space in the interview. There was a pause and host Ana Cabrera then asked, “Dr. Blazak, so if you were President Trump’s speech writer today, what would be the very first line, the first words out of the president’s mouth regarding the situation in Charlottesville if you were to advise that?”
My friends watching said I looked like I wanted to laugh out loud at the thought of being cast as Trump’s speech writer. I didn’t say what I wanted to say. I squelched the devil on my shoulder and decided to remain the professional academic. I replied:
I think it’s acknowledging the importance of diversity in this country, the fact that we are stronger together. And then we do want to come together, it’s going to take people acknowledging the history of oppression and racism that we have before we even take the next step. Sort of acknowledging that truth is key to the whole thing.
Here’s what I should have said:
Donald Trump is an idiot. At least on the issue of race, he’s a complete idiot. Not only does he not understand the very basic elements of race relations in America, he has shown no intellectual interest in understanding them. He’s not the president of all Americans, just of the ones who think like him.
This matter resurfaces on a regular basis. From his regular proclamation that he’s the “least racist person there is,” (the least racist person would never say that) to this week’s proclamation that the ongoing impeachment inquiry is the equivalent of a “lynching.” This guy is clueless and hasn’t learned anything while being “our” president.
But this isn’t about Trump. It’s all about the white people like him who don’t understand how racism works. They think that being a racist is joining the Klan and burning crosses. They don’t understand the insidious persistence of racism in our institutions and in our psyches in the form of implicit bias. Racists are bad people so how can they be racists? They’re good!
Sevier County Commission member Warren Hurst (an old white guy in Tennessee) is a perfect of example. At a public meeting this week, after complaining that there was a “queer” running for president, said, “I’m not prejudiced, a white male in this country has very few rights and they’re getting took more every day,” and then a bunch of other white people applauded.
This also isn’t about being “racist.” I would argue everyone is racist to some degree. We’ve all internalized ugly messages about white supremacy. Whether it’s white ladies clutching their purse when they see a black man, or black people placing a greater value on lighter skin, racism is the fabric of our lives. It’s there in Muslim bans, the gentrification of black and brown neighborhoods, police profiling, and the daily micro-aggressions that white people dismiss as “not meaning anything.” Racism wasn’t erased by the end of the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the election of a black president, or white kids listening to Travis Scott. This is about what you’re doing about that racism.
I never say I’m not a racist. I’ve internalized white supremacist values since my childhood, but I’m working hard to purge them. I’m getting better at identifying my white privilege and recognizing when I’m practicing white fragility. It’s hard and it sucks and I can see why a lot of white people don’t want to be bothered with the disentangling that requires a constant mirror reflecting some pretty ugly shit right back at you. I never say I’m not a racist, but I do say I am actively anti-racist.
If your core orientation, as a white person, is not actively anti-racist, you are practicing racism. Like the “good Germans” who stood on the sidelines and allowed the Holocaust to happen, you are enabling the white supremacy that exists in every corner of society. Being actively anti-racist requires that there are times when you need to shut the fuck up and listen to and honor the real lived experiences of oppression that people of color endure. Don’t speak for them, whitey. Listen with an empathetic heart.
But being actively anti-racist also means speaking up when you encounter racism in systems or people. I was inspired to write this because a good friend referred to Lindsey Graham as her “spirit animal” when he defended Trump’s claim that he was being lynched. An anti-racist person would not do that. An anti-racist white person would hear the anguish of black people with regard to the vicious history of lynching and defer to their pain. An anti-racist person wouldn’t say shit, like “Well, Clarence Thomas used that word.” An anti-racist white person would know how to hear the truth and know that they can be become a better person by hearing that truth.
I never want to hear another person say they are “not a racist.” I want to hear white people say they are actively dismantling white supremacy whenever they encounter it, including in themselves.
But part of white privilege is being lazy and feeling like you don’t have to do any work on yourself. White people, you better work.