“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (or, at least, I am)

(title referring to the Avenue Q song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist“, not necessarily saying everyone’s racist)

When I was a freshman in college, well-intentioned but inexperienced in the ways of cross-cultural relationships, I joined an organization called InterVarsity that focuses, among other things, on “racial reconciliation”–working to intentionally bring together people of different races in love and, well, reconciliation.

InterVarsity staff being all diverse-like
InterVarsity staff being all diverse-like

The first large conference I attended with InterVarsity had a speaker who, in his first talk, said “All White people are racist.” He went on to ask us whether we had ever had a person of color at our dining table growing up, to ask us about our inward biases and the absence of true cross-cultural relationships, and more, and then to present his theory of how all White people have some negative predispositions based on something cultural yada yada yada.

I pretty much walked out. I don’t say yada yada yada out of disrespect to the speaker–he’s actually now a good friend of mine. I say it because I was so done with listening to this dude, who had never met me and knew nothing about my heart, telling me I hold negative prejudices against people who aren’t like me. I literally don’t remember the majority of his talk. I’ve thought about it a lot since then, though.

I think the speaker was both right and wrong.

Let’s start with where I think he was wrong.

When we hear “racism” we hear “intentionalhateful thoughts and actions directed at people of different races.” This doesn’t (understandably!) line up with our self-concept, so when we’re told that we’re racist, our defense shields go instantly up. I can’t remember who said it, but a friend of mine said (only half-jokingly) that White people are often more upset at being called racist than we are at racism itself.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this. My particular section of White culture has a strongly defined sense of how we should appear, and we’d never do anything to be seen as racist, or intolerant, or even un-colorblind. But I also think most of us do want to treat all people equally, so hearing someone say “All White people are racist” seems very untrue to us.

There’s a phrase I like to use that I think more appropriately describes the reality for most White Americans: Many White people participate uncritically in a racialized society. Most of us have been taught that colorblindness is the most appropriate and progressive posture for us to take regarding race-that the mature, correct way to move on past racism is to ignore race. This is how “I don’t see you as Black” can seem like a compliment when we give it… until we realize what we’re saying.

And, to be honest, regardless of what we’ve been taught, we like colorblindness. You mean the best thing I can do is just stop thinking about it? Especially if I have enough education to know about the historical atrocities perpetuated by people with my same skin color in my same country within the last several hundred years, by far the best and easiest and least painful and least shameful response is to stop thinking about it.

But the system is broken. My ignoring race doesn’t change the realities of our racialized society (a term I stole from Divided By Faith). Our country is unevenly and evilly striated along racial lines in terms of justice, equity, arrest rates, hiring, wealth, beauty standards, and literally hundreds of other ways.

Uncritically, passively benefitting from a system like this is a problem just like active racism is. Yes, an individual who’s actively racist is “worse” than an individual who’s passively participating in systemic racism; but, the sum total of wrong perpetuated by systemic racism is far worse than the sum total of wrong perpetuated by individual racists.

Do you hear that? While my little bad may not be as bad as someone else’s big bad, the bad I’m a part of is worse overall. Call it racism or call it something else, it’s based on race, it’s wildly destructive, and my (in)action is a huge part of it.

That means that if a White person is made aware of the injustice prevalent in our country and chooses to do nothing, we’re contributing to the greatest racial wrong going on today. So when we work to bring White people into understanding this aspect of it, let’s consider calling it something other than racism, because that attributes hatred where it isn’t and keeps us from engaging fully. But let’s not shy from calling it what it is: not loving our sisters and brothers of color enough to inconvenience ourselves for their sakes. *

This quote has been attributed wrongly to Dorothy Day; I’m not sure who said it, but that doesn’t make it kick me any less:

When they come for the innocent without crossing my body, cursed be my religion and my life.

May we be so in love with our sisters and brothers who don’t look like us that we abandon our lives to serve, love, and protect them.

We’re not done yet, though.

I think the speaker was right, too.

It’s taken me 11 years to realize this, but I think he was also right.

In 18 years of my life, I hadn’t experienced enough of the life or experiences of Black, Latin, or Asian Americans to think rightly in regard to them. I didn’t know their unique pains, experiences, or cultural values. I knew less than five Black men at that point, for example, and none deeply enough for them to bare their souls to me. So I was left relying almost entirely on the media and pop culture to inform me of their lives, their character, their values.

Furthermore, like the majority of White Americans, I believed that everyone else experienced the world just like I do. My day-to-day experience with police, shop owners, family, communication, wealth and hiring and earning potential, schooling, politicians, beauty and the media, and so much more was, to me, the normative experience. So even when I did encounter an accurate representation of people of color, I presumed that they were making their decisions and opinions based on the same experience and perspective as me, which threw off my understanding even further.

So, did I think Black men (I’ll stay on this example, but this applies elsewhere) were no-good, lazy criminals, devoid of morals or education, like they’re most commonly portrayed in popular media? No. Not at the front of my mind. At the back of my mind… no. But.

But. I had used the phrase “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” just a few months before. Not to refer to Black people in particular, mind you, but about poor people. But let’s reason together. If I wasn’t able to understand and recognize the systemic injustice and racism that is so influential in poverty in the U.S., then I had to have some thoughts–maybe subconscious, maybe down deep, but in there somewhere–about why people were poor, and those thoughts had to interact with the knowledge that there are A Lot Of Poor Black People and There Are A Lot of Black People In Jail and many other vaguely known generalizations that, while possibly numerically true, are true for very different reasons that I likely, subconsciously or not, assumed. I may not have drawn these connections out loud, not even at the front of my mind, but the pieces of a puzzle that led to lazy, unintelligent Black men still lay in there. Somewhere.

Even as I began to really dig into multiethnic community with InterVarsity, I might feel one of these prejudices bubble up toward the front of my mind, so imperceptibly that I was able to push it back before I even realized what was happening. In a conversation about language, for example, my presumptions about Ebonics (African American Vernacular English, or AAVE) would let a bubble show through. I thought of “Ebonics” as corrupted English, rather than a Creole with influences from several other languages than English. I presumed, partly because that’s what we’re taught about “Ebonics” and partly because it played nicely with all of my other subconscious assumptions about its speakers, that it was essentially English dumbed down. The moment someone pointed out that my assumptions indicated that I was horrified–“I’m not racist!” But I realized there was no other explanation for this belief I held, even if it suggested something about me that I believed vehemently to be untrue.

It’s embarrassing to write this, because I don’t want this to have been true about myself. I have been welcomed, loved, cared for, and made to feel like family by more Black people (and other people of color) than you can imagine. Some of my deepest, closest friends and family members are those who might have somehow triggered those subconscious assumptions that I can’t even figure out the words for here. What if they read this and decide that those little subconscious bubbles are still there now, that I may now subconsciously think bad things about them? What if this breaks our trust, a trust that is so vital to me?

But there was something there, something that was so buried and so subconscious that I don’t really understand it all even now, and if I’m going to write a blog post where I say, “We’re not racist, we’re just participating uncritically in a racialized society,” I need to be honest that I have this little voice in me that says, “Maybe we are all just a little bit racist.”


*I know for a lot of people, the response will be: “OK, that’s great, but how am I to respond? I tried to write it here in a brief postscript, but it deserves much more space, so I’ll be writing another post in the next week or so with more resources and next steps.

Matt

11 comments

  • I can agree with your thoughts Matt, thanks for sharing.

    Here’s my inner monologue.
    Reading article…
    Googled “racialized society”, read wikipedia.
    Kept reading….
    Finished article…
    “Maybe I should share a thought…ummm nah, too scared to look foolish or racist”
    —————————
    Also we don’t know what we haven’t experienced, I don’t know if that’s “racist” or just bias based due to unfamiliarity . Example: black culture is more familiar to me than west coast married gay people. I know and have been around way more black people than married gay people. That just makes me ignorant.
    —————————
    I do wonder if there’s a version of “white guilt” for other cultures like young Germans, do they feel guilty about the atrocities of their grandfathers?
    —————————
    I’ll add that all dialect of english including southern, Creole, ebonics is looked down upon, it’s not just ebonic. Guaranteed if I said “aint” in front of a tech industry conference I’d get lambasted too or more so than a black man.

    • Hey Allan,
      I think the fear of speaking up for the sake of looking foolish or racist is the biggest barrier to well meaning, good-hearted White people entering into the online conversation around race. I don’t know that I have a full grasp on all the pieces of why so many of us feel that way, but I really want to think about it and would love any more thoughts you have about why that’s a dynamic for us.

      I agree with you about experience. There’s a difference between lack of knowledge, prejudice, and racism… but those differences can be nuanced and sometimes difficult to understand. Simply not knowing much about Black culture isn’t a sin. But acting and believing in ways that reflect the definitively problematic widespread negative beliefs about Black culture is, and we often fall back on those problematic beliefs out of a lack of actual personal experience.

      I don’t know a *ton* of Germans, but I know a few, and I know that’s still very present in their national identity.

      And you’re definitely right. Southern White English is probably the closest White dialect to AAVE/Ebonics in terms of the way it can so quickly influence someone’s perception of you.

      Thanks for your comment and for always engaging. It really means a lot to me that you’re willing to share.

  • I’m really sick of people arguing about: reverse racism. There is no such thing.
    First off do not confuse prejudice with racism. Racism requires power, privileges and control enough so to be able to make laws, rules and punishments based solely on racial differences. Does prejudice exist? Of course. Do those prejudices sometimes run through racial lines? Of course. But just disliking someone who happens to be of a different race is not racism. Acknowledging that someone is or appears to be of a certain race is also NOT racism – it’s being observant and sometimes wrongly so. With that said, at no time in the history of the Americas have White people suffered widespread discrimination, exclusion, persecution, prosecution, death, rape, slavery, beatings, genocide, displacement, religious persecution, unequal educational opportunities, voting restrictions and out and out hate at the hands of the Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, Aboriginal Americans in Canada or Central and South America or people of African ancestry, Cambodians, Vietnamese. Shall I continue? As animals, humans tend to first fear what the do not understand or know, however, in the history of humanity, those of White European descent have historically committed the worst atrocities against other humans worldwide. That’s the difference between being a White person feeling uncomfortable in a Black store or neighborhood and there being a 400 year history of people like you being targeted by Whites in this country no matter where you went or what you did: even if you had your hands up in the historical gesture of surrender begging not to be shot. #michaelbrown #dontshoot #endracismnow #fightbackagainststatesanctionedbrutality

    With all of that said, thank you to everyone out here willing and able to spread the message. Thank you for the support; thank you for raising your voices to be heard above the constant and consistent rhetoric. Thank you Mr. Stauffer for putting it out there.

    Are you on Facebook?

    • Thanks for your comment, Luisa, and I really appreciate your encouragement. I only use Facebook to keep up with my family; it’s Twitter where I’m most active. 🙂

  • Matt,

    I’ve read a few of your blog posts and you my friend speak to me directly. I’ve actually experienced more than once what you have so clearly described. As a person of color I was never really part of the “programming inner circles” in companies I’ve worked for. Thank you for this man, thank you that someone out there has the foresight to write what you write about.

    I’ve been in tech meetings where I knew more than anyone else in the room and my answers were ignored completely. I went into a meeting one time with a developer I trained and because he was white all of the questions were directed at him… I fired that client! – they’d never seen me before that and I worked with them for 6 months 🙂

    Anyway, you are a blessing dude! You’ve helped me to confront my own self-concept and your words have helped me to see how I sub-consciously setup the way I want people to treat me.

    Regards,
    Brendan

    • Hi Brendan,
      I’m overjoyed to hear that–not that you’ve had those negative experiences, but that these blog posts have been good to you. Seriously, thank you for sharing, and I’m so happy to hear that. I hope we have the opportunity to meet in person at a tech conference or something some time.

      Thanks so much! I hope that you’re able to grow further and further into an awareness of what you really do bring to the organizations you’re a part of, and to further develop your identity and voice.

      Blessings,
      -matt

    • Hi Brendan,

      I had a similar situation where I wrote a guideline for some important ISO standard and everyone in the meeting literally treated it like it was impossible to achieve. I sent the same guideline to another colleague who was white in a different department and it was golden.

      I must also say that I do not think they are racist, I think they have that subconscious attitude to people of color generally and I am sure they would take offense at being called Racist.

      The sad truth is that I have learned to go the long way to get any of my guidelines, procedures and protocols implemented. i.e. I have to get my white colleagues involved.

  • Hey Matt,

    I appreciate your effort to think it a through. I will go ahead and be a voice offering a differing view.

    Your view hinges on broad, simplified cagegories. Re-read your post and consider the basic generalizations made. Are Scottish, Italian, South Africans, and Canadians all “white?” Are all people of color one group based on skin tone? Dividing people into A and B cagegories helps us very little.

    Here’s an example from your post: “In 18 years of my life, I hadn’t experienced enough of the life or experiences of Black, Latin, or Asian Americans to think rightly in regard to them. I didn’t know their unique pains, experiences, or cultural values.”

    You create these large groups of people and refer to their “unique pains.” That sounds small.

    Perhaps it is racist to refer to people by skin color rather than profession, Nationality, or religion. She’s not a black doctor; she’s a doctor. He’s not a Canadian of color; He’s a Canadian. She’s not a white Muslim; She’s a Muslim.

    I liked how you alluded to the ultimate goal: to judgemental people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    • Hey David,
      Thanks for your comment! My thoughts:

      Scottish, Italian, South Africans, and Canadians of European descent are all White.

      All people of color are one group based on skin tone (ish–a light skinned Black man might have the same skin tone as a very tan Italian man, so it’s not just skin tone.)

      When groups are already divided, naming those divisions is not the problem: Pretending they don’t exist is a problem. “Race” doesn’t even exist biologically! But it does sociologically, and it is a day-to-day influence on people’s lives; therefore it’s worth discussing, and discussing something that’s already there isn’t the divisive element.

      I didn’t create those large groups. There are many factors grouping people; family, language, dialect, religion, profession, education, area of the country, color of hair, musical ability, and opinion about Katy Perry. Just because some groupings are broad, some narrow, some groupings we like to make and some groupings we don’t like to make doesn’t make any group more or less usable in a conversation.

      Do I understand what it’s like to be Mexican in Tucson? A little. Do I understand what it’s like to be Italian in New Jersey? A little. Do I understand what it’s like to be a plumber? A little. Each of these things affect people’s lives in a different way, and I can identify with each to varying amounts. The fact that I didn’t choose to write an article about my level of identification with plumbers doesn’t mean I don’t have a level of separation with them–and if Ferguson, or the Trayvon Martin case, or pay and arrest and jailing and housing and wealth rates, or any of these other national issues were an issue of plumbers vs. non-plumbers, I hope I would be writing the same post about how I’m a little career-ist. But that’s not the case.

      It’s not racist to refer to people by skin color. She is a Black doctor. He is a Canadian of color. She is a White Muslim. Choosing not to use the adjectives to describe someone’s ethnicity/race doesn’t make it go away; and describing the desire to not use it describes exactly what I’m talking about here: We have the idea that being *colorblind* is a value. It’s not, for two primary reasons: first, because the experiences of people of different ethnicities and races *is* different, so acting like it’s not is disrespectful and dishonest; and second, because there are many GOOD things about our races and ethnicities that are worth celebrating. I love being White. There are a lot of great things about my race (White), my ethnicities (German, Italian, Czech, etc.), my language (American English with a mixture of Midwest and Southern dialects with a tiny hint of Pennsylvania Dutch), my religion (Moderate Charismatic Evangelical non-Fundamentalist Christianity with an influence from Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican, and Assemblies of God), my family (a group of people who love physical affection and music and friends)… don’t try to take those things away from me by saying I’m just Matt. I’m not. I’m White Matt. I’m web developer Matt. I’m Evangelical Christian Matt. I am all of these things, and they are all a part of me.

      The larger the group of people we address/discuss at any given time, the more careful we need to be with our generalizations. There are exceptions to every rule, and this is true with every generalization I’ve made here. But I’m discussing in large swaths the experience of the vast majority of people I’ve had the opportunity to interact with, read about, and learn from.

  • Thank you. This is the most comprehensive address I’ve seen of the lack of knowledge and understanding of some white people concerning racism. I was in Eastern Europe when everything happened in Ferguson, MO and the only information I had access to was via social media. The comments I read were so hurtful that I had to force myself not to look in order to enjoy my trip. The crazy thing was that the white people in Eastern Europe are completely different (based on the 7 days I spent in Prague, Vienna, & Budapest). Traveling was extremely eye-opening.

    Back on topic … since Trayvon Martin was killed and even more over the past 5-6 days , I’ve been trying to find words and examples to explain to any white person that would engage me, what is really going on … why black people are so angry, our history, our experiences, why they don’t understand, etc. Everything you’ve written has come across my mind in one form or another but what’s missing is my understanding of what it’s like to be white and completely unbothered. Thankfully, you and others (Matt Chandler addressed this) have the words and a way to reach white people (though I hate using those 2 words together … I feel like I’m being offensive) that I don’t have. I am a School Psychologist and have a social and psych background that has afforded me the knowledge of terms and their appropriate definitions; racism, white privilege, implicit racial bias, institutionalized racism … so I know quite a bit but I still could not have conveyed these things the way that you have.

    I learned a lot from reading this and it actually calmed my spirit, which has been weary. It’s not easy seeing people repeatedly diminish your experiences and the experiences of your family and friends. Or for them to tell you that your historical place in this country is irrelevant though the effects of the injustice are constantly present. People like you give me hope. I am a Christian before I am a black woman … I can’t afford to hate white people … I have to see the face of Jesus. This helped me so much. Thank you … and I’m pretty sure I went to [edited: elementary school] with your wife and [edited: high school] with her friend [redacted].

    God bless.

  • Excellent post and more than necessary. I’m glad that there are people out here willing to be uncomfortable, will to recognize their subconscious biases. Please continue to blog because when I as a person of color try to say the same thing to white people they often turn a deaf ear because they refuse to see themselves as racially anything because of the negative connotations associated with all things racial. I would love to see your take on the Black Lives Matter movement because so many people believe we are singling out Black people and want to ignore everyone else as if their live don’t matter. But our reality is not theirs and we just want people to realize that we matter TOO! Keep up the excellent writing! And keep being ACTIVE in the fight for change!

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