And the sooner we both acknowledge this, the sooner we can begin to address the problem. So let’s talk.
“Wait just a minute here, Rachel. You’re like, the least racist person I know. You’re always sharing stuff about race and racism. You couldn’t possibly be racist.”
Here’s the deal. Racism isn’t just guys in white robes and Paula Deen shouting racial slurs. Racism is subtle, racism is insidious, and our culture is so deeply steeped in it that it’s impossible to grow up in the US and not be racist. It’s a kind of brainwashing: a set of default configuration files that come with the culture. It’s a filter, built up from birth, that alters our perception of the world. (Literally–racial bias makes people see weapons that aren’t there.) Racism isn’t just conscious actions; it’s judgements that happen so fast that we may not even be aware of them. Even people who are horrified by the idea of racism see through this lens, have this default programming. Even you. Even me.
How do I know that I’m racist?
Once, while living alone, I heard a noise that I took to be someone attempting to break in to my house. Instead of transforming into the valkyrie I’d always imagined I’d be in such a situation, I proceeded to have the kind of reaction I usually reserve for brown recluse spiders. Which is to say, I hid and called my boyfriend to come rescue me. When he arrived, finding the only other occupant of my house to be my wildly overactive imagination, he asked me, “What were you so afraid of?”
Unbidden, the image of a tall, young black man popped into my head. I don’t remember what answer I gave my boyfriend, but I doubt it was “young black men”.
Several years later, I’m walking home from the train. A black man I pass tries to get my attention, and I ignore him, as is my policy when approached by male strangers. He tries to get my attention again. Heart pounding, I turn to acknowledge him. He asks me for directions to the library, which I of course give him. I walk home with adrenaline surging through my veins and shame churning in my stomach.
Several years later, I’m walking across the street. It’s the middle of sunny afternoon at a busy intersection near my apartment. Three tall, broad black men in baggy tees and baseball caps, walk past me in the opposite direction. They don’t look at me, approach me, or interact with me in any way. And yet, I realized suddenly, I felt a flush of fear as they passed.
I don’t know what it was about this third interaction that made me recognize my racism for what it was. Perhaps it was because I’d been reading a lot of feminist writings about race and racism. Perhaps the third time was simply the charm. Perhaps it was how utterly and completely inculpable those three guys were in my rush of fear. They hadn’t even acknowledged my existence, and here I was, pulse spiking because I’d fucking walked past them.
“Hang on, though, Rachel.” I can hear you now. “Just because you’re afraid of black male strangers doesn’t mean you’re racist. Have you considered that your fear of black men is justified?”
Why yes, I have considered that. It would be awfully convenient, after all. But according to the Criminal Victimization Tables released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics [pdf], white people, who comprise 72% of the population of the US, commit 69% of the violent crime against white people, whereas black people, who comprise 13% of the population, commit 13% of the violent crime against white people. Not only does this mean that I am much more likely to be victimized by a white person than a black person, it also suggests that violent offenders who victimize white people are uniformly distributed across races. So, given this knowledge, why am I not more afraid of white men? Why is it that my brain conjures images of black men to embody my fears?
Upon recognizing my fear for what it was–racism–all I could think was, “Oh my god, Rachel, how fucking cliche is that? You’re the lily white blonde girl, afraid of black men. What, were you born on the set of King Kong?”
No, I was born in America. American media and mythos have been peddling the idea of violent and aggressive black people since the beginning of their enslavement at our hands hundreds of years ago; the fear we feel is a tool that has been leveraged to oppress, profit from, and destroy black bodies. The fear persists. Duncan (1976, PDF here) found that when performing the exact same action, black men are perceived as more violent than white men. Sagar and Schofield (1980, Google cache of PDF here) found that both white and black 6th graders rate actions as more mean and threatening when the person taking the action is black. Madriz (1997, PDF here) found that women of a variety of socio-economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds had similar perceptions of criminals–they feared victimization by black and latino men. The research goes on and on–Americans are afraid of black people, especially black men. This fear, the legacy of hundreds of years of subjugation and racism, is part of our cultural heritage just like hot dogs and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
However, unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this fear kills people.
Mike Brown. Renisha McBride. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. These are only a handful of the hundreds of people killed each year because of white people’s fear. Because of fear like mine. Because of racism like mine.
The media will tell you that those people asked for it. They weren’t properly respectful. They were thugs or drunks or in some way unacceptable (as though that gives us license to murder them?!). We must recognize that as bullshit. They’re soothing, irrelevant, lies that we white people tell ourselves to avoid naming our fears for what they are–racism. We would rather slander the dead than admit to ourselves that our irrational fears are rooted deeply in this country’s history of enslaving, oppressing, and murdering black people. It is easier to cling to any justification of our our fear, even the flimsiest, most transparent justifications, than it is to probe how our own fears contributed to their murder.
We cannot continue to take the easy way out. This cannot be allowed to continue. People are dying, because white people have not stepped up to the plate and addressed the racism that has wormed its tendrils through our souls.
It is our turn at bat.
“I dunno, Rach. Maybe you’re racist, but I’m certainly not. I’m not afraid of black men, for instance.”
Really? You sure about that? Maybe you aren’t afraid of black men, but that example is only the most relevant and easily described way in which I have found my racism to manifest. There are a myriad of other areas in which our racism colors our perception, all requiring hard thinking and serious mindfulness to identify. Mine was so subtle it took years to even notice it.
So are you really sure you harbor no racism? How much time have you spent thinking about and examining your possible biases? How much do you listen to and learn about the experiences of black people from black people themselves? How often do you read about racism and structural inequality? Just how sure are you that you have somehow, miraculously, been able to avoid soaking up the racism that American culture is swimming in?
Look, I’m not here to condemn you. Condemning you, after all, would condemn me as well. I’m here to tell you that it’s not us against the racists. We’re not fighting a battle with the Paula Deens of the world. If only it were that simple, that cut and dried. The battle is instead us against racism, and that racism resides in each of us. This war begins within.
On the bright side, that means we have the home court advantage. How do we get started, though?
First, we read. Hundreds of people, brighter and more well-studied than I am, have been writing about these things for years. For longer than I’ve been alive. I’ll put a bunch of links at the bottom of this post to give you a good place to start.
Second, we must interrogate our discomfort. Reading will be hard. You will learn things you do not want to know. You will read things that make you want to lash out in your own defense, to shout, “Not all white people! Certainly not me!” Don’t shout that. Especially don’t shout that at a black person who is telling you about their lived experiences. If you absolutely cannot restrain yourself, and you must proclaim your innocence to someone, you can send me an email. I will say comforting and soothing things about how this is a necessary step on your journey to getting a passing grade in Decent Human Being, and how I expect you to suck it the hell up because as I said earlier PEOPLE ARE DYING and that’s more important than either your feelings or mine. This is going to be uncomfortable. It will make you feel sick to your stomach. It will make your heart ache. It will make your scalp tingle and your blood pound in your ears and you will want so desperately to stop and go back to the time when you existed, oblivious, in a blissful bubble of white privilege and YOU MUST KEEP GOING ANYWAY. Your temporary discomfort is a small price when weighed against the lives of millions of people. Sit with your discomfort. Befriend your discomfort. Let your discomfort guide you–where there is discomfort, there is likely unexamined bias. When you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why. “Why does that make me uncomfortable? What is it about that that makes me feel this way? What are the beliefs that I hold that are conflicting with what I am reading?” You will survive your discomfort–black children do not survive being gunned down by cops.
Third, we must cultivate a perspective of belief. As I said, racism is a filter through which we view everything, whether we want to or not. It’s like being born wearing tinted glasses–certain colors are filtered out of our perception. The filter of our racism creates makes it very difficult to see the racism at first. We must be trained to see it by the people who experience it more directly. So as you’re reading, and making friends with your discomfort, remember: if someone tells you that some event is because of racism, believe them. It may be a long time before you’re able to see racism with clarity. Until that point, it is an entirely reasonable default position to believe the people who have been observing it longer. You are not objective in this regard; you must proactively correct for your own cognitive bias.
Fourth, we must be gentle with ourselves. We accomplish nothing by doing more violence to our pysches than our system has already done. You are not a bad person because you are racist. I am not a bad person because I am racist. We are just people, products of a racist culture that we didn’t choose but got stuck with anyway. It is, however, our responsibility, our ethical obligation, to address our own racism. We cannot change a racist system–a system that oppresses and brutalizes black people and other people of color–without first changing ourselves.
Finally, we must realize that the battle with our racism will never be over. You don’t just wake up one morning and say, “I guess I’m done being racist!” Over time, we’ll improve, of course. We’ll succeed in building new mental pathways that overwrite parts of our racist programming. But we will struggle. We will grapple with pernicious racist beliefs so ingrained that our minds have carved canyons down those planes of thought. It will frustrate us, how quickly our brains find the racist answer, like marbles rolling to a low spot in the floor. And when we succeed in leveling that floor, we’ll find new pockets of racism that we didn’t even know existed. We will never win–but we must press on in the struggle.
I know you can do this.
I know we can do this.
I know we can do this, because we must do this.
Articles to read:
Publications to Read:
Books to Read: