(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.
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 “intentional, hateful 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.