The word “racist” has a lot of weight attached to it. It’s the most powerful and descriptive word to address race-based discrimination, oppression, and general bad attitudes and behavior. However, it’s also painful and offensive to people who aren’t racist (or don’t consider themselves racist.) So how can we work around such a weighted term?
When I first went to college, I heard a (White) speaker declare that “all White people are racist.” I was shocked and instantly defensive–which was in part his goal. Since then I’ve struggled with how to understand and process this statement and his opinions, and I’d like to process a little bit here.
First, I don’t believe all White people are racist*. But he didn’t really mean “racist” in the way people are offended to hear it; he meant “insensitive, unaware, and potentially biased.” It’s still a negative portrayal, but vastly different from what most people imagine when they hear racist: “prejudiced, angry, judgmental, bigoted, and hateful.”
Second, I don’t believe all White people are what he meant by the word “racist.” Even being the same ethnicity as someone, it’s still stereotyping (and, arguably, racist) to assume that you know something about a person solely because of the color of their skin.
However, I do think his core point–when you dig past semantics–was right on point. Most White people in the US have quite a bit of growing to do in the area of race relationships. There are two main areas I’ve learned we suffer: Unaware-ness (yes, I made that word up) and racialization.
I do believe that the vast majority (we’re talking 97+% here) of White people in the US live our lives with little to no interactions with the significant racial undercurrents, tensions, conversations, and pressures that exist in the world around us. The point the speaker was trying to drive home is that not only do we not see it, we don’t even know it’s there. This is a topic for a much longer post/conversation (maybe next week?), so please excuse my brief but inflammatory statement here.
Essentially, as I’ve stepped into relationship with more and more people of color, and as I’ve learned more about the historic and present state of race relations in our country, I’ve begun to see the complex world of racial dynamics as something like the Matrix. There’s an entire world of interactions and pressures and battles that affects everything around us, but the majority of White Americans spend our lives blissfully unaware of it. The majority of American people of color, on the other hand, are unable to be unaware of these issues, as they affect their everyday lives.
Again, this is a touchy subject and one worth a much longer discussion, but that’s the start of it. There are many aspects of racial reconciliation that require structural change, but this is the one piece that is most powerfully affected by personal relationship. For me, it began to change when I (rather naïvely) joined an ongoing discussion about race and ethnicity in which I was one of few White people, and I had the opportunity to learn about the practical, lived out experiences of my friends of color.
Once again, more on this later.
The other half of this puzzle is the concept of racialization. It is another made up word that I first discovered in the book Divided By Faith. Again, it’s a complex subject, but the essence of it is this: Our culture and our nation is racialized, which means it’s divided along racial lines. Income, unemployment, education, incarceration, housing quality, school quality, and many more areas of inequity in our country are striated based on racial lines. This means that no matter how post-racial our country is or isn’t, this fact is still true: “African-Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population – and about 44 percent of America’s prison inmates.” (source) Whether or not you believe that’s because Black people are inherently more inclined to crime (which I hope you don’t), you must recognize that that shows a racialized aspect of our society–one which is separated based on race.
So, whether or not you are racist isn’t the deepest issue for White people. Many of us harbor no conscious stereotypes or negative attitudes towards people of color, and many of us even have friends of color. However, the concept of racialization shows that we live in a country that is deeply broken in regards to race and how it affects people’s lives. So the question here because less about your racism and more about your awareness and action: Do you understand that we live in a racialized society that privileges us because we’re White? If not, how does your view line up with the statistics like the one I quoted above? If so, what are you doing about it?
Again, these are all complex topics–and this is already an extremely long blog post–but I hope this can begin the conversation. Please, let me know what you think, and feel free to get in touch with me so we can discuss it further.
*However, I do think you’d be hard-pressed to find a person of any race that harbors not one unexamined stereotype, race-based presumption, or similar internal racist thought. It’s in our nature to make assumptions (stereotypes, if you will) about people based on shared characteristics, and when you add to that every external force in our culture shaping and molding us to think this way about this person and that way about the other, it’s a potent brew of presumptions. Similarly, unless someone has perfectly equal exposure to people of every culture, and the most saintly attitude of openness and non-judgment, some of their knowledge and understanding of people of other cultures will be less complete and less accurate than that of others. As a musical once suggested, I’d suggest “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
Good thoughts, Matt. I can attest to the unawareness aspect in my own life. Growing up in Ypsi, in a mixed-race neighborhood, I thought I had a decent perspective, but I think my experience was abnormal, in that I treated our elderly black neighbor kind of like a grandma, and played with some of the black kids who lived nearby. In college I happened to take an Intro to African American Studies class, and I gained a much deeper awareness of the racial issues in the country. That was about the only thing I gained from the class, other than the “multi-cultural credit”, as it was an awful class taught by a worse teacher. The teacher was truly awful, but perhaps the greatest fault of the class was merely that I was expecting it to be a class studying the history of African Americans, and it was a class studying the history of the development of African American Studies as an academic discipline.
However, while I developed some awareness, I came out of the class even more convinced that “race” is but a convenient correlation for much deeper cultural issues. In my final paper for that class, I was supposed to write a reflective essay on the topic of awareness, and in it I argued that, at least for me, I am impacted far more by a combination of cultural markers than by any particular physical feature. The example I like to give is my reaction to the clothes people wear and the way they carry themselves. If I’m walking down the street, my initial judgment of a stranger I encounter is based much more on this than their race. A black guy wearing a shirt and tie causes a much more favorable reaction than a white guy wearing trashy or gang-like clothing. I admit that I would initially react to a black guy with shirt and tie differently than a white guy with a shirt and tie, but I don’t think this is really any different than our tendency to treat people with a southern accent as less intelligent regardless of race. I hold in my mind cultural stereotypes about different ethnic groups, people with nose rings, people with “Coexist” bumper stickers, etc. It’s just a lot easier to a) recognize this stereotyping when there’s a highly visible and historically reinforced racial correlation and b) to discriminate on that basis.