October 23, 2019
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.