racism, not racists: a white guy’s thoughts

by isaac black

Preface: I truly hope I’m not guilt of whitesplaining, if that’s a thing, with the below post. I’m open to thoughtful criticism. Please try to meet me halfway.

There is a word that, if you level it against a certain portion of the population, will result in outrage and calls for explanation. The word is “racist.” Even racists these days don’t like being called racist. The provocative nature of such a claim is evident in the pop singer Sky Ferreira’s reaction to accusations of racism in a recent video: “Nothing upsets me more than being called racist because that is one of the most hateful things anyone can be.” In response to the suggestion that she chose black dancers for her video to be portrayed as objects, she counterattacks: “Dancers are objects?!?!?! How dare you!”

I actually haven’t seen the video in question, and I don’t intend to weigh in on whether or not Ferreira is a racist. I only mean to point out how incendiary claims of racism can be. On one hand, it’s a victory that being an explicit racist is taboo now in our society (to a certain degree). But on the other hand it feels counter-productive. If no one can talk about the “r” word without everyone becoming hysterical, important discussions can stop before they begin.

Besides, the bigger problem is not racists, no matter how wealthy or influential. Most racists (in the US) either marginalize themselves by being general assholes or will die off pretty soon. This is not to downplay the very real harm that racists inflict every day, but it’s rather small potatoes compared to the systemic racism of, for example, the justice system.

We are all products of a racist society. The modern day US has inherited a history of enslaving people based on, yes, race, and then repeatedly placing institutional hurdles in their path to equality and respectability. Electing a black president doesn’t erase history, and neither does the diversity of one’s personal friend group. For that matter, neither does one’s lineage. We all know that President Obama is racist against white people, but when he singled out unwed black fathers, was he relying on a racist stereotype of black men? I’m only being a little provocative; I don’t believe the answer is as clear cut that as a black man he can’t be guilty of racism.

One of the premises of racism is that society inundates us, all of us, with false messages about the inferiority of minorities. Black, white, Latino, Asian—everyone grows up in the toxic slurry of disinformation regarding people of color. Rather than engaging in witch hunts about who is or isn’t racist—and the subsequent back-patting of those who rooted out the racists—I believe a more useful conversation would center on those racist parts of all of us. I don’t see how that can happen without removing the stigma. So to break the ice, I’ll admit that, despite my best efforts, I can be guilty of racism.

I’m a white male who grew up in South Carolina in a church with a (rather recent) history of racial discrimination. I remember my friends and I joking about how we were truly in with our black friends if we could say the “n” word around them. I remember accepting explanations of the LDS Church’s prohibition on black males from being priests and receiving salvific ordinances because of their assumed noncommittal behavior in a pre-existence. I remember as a missionary going along with other white people in mocking the people of the Philippines because of the “backwards” way that they did things. I am not proud of my attitudes or my actions at these times, and I strive to become more aware of my privilege and the subtle ways that prejudice can influence my judgment.

The words of an acknowledged racist like Donald Sterling sting. They offend me; I can only imagine how they might feel to a person who encounters attitudes like that everyday, who every day has to start from the bottom of the hill and burnish her or his reputation to total strangers based on the color of her or his skin and the other person’s preconceived notions. But the words wouldn’t have the same resonance in a society where people weren’t still purging those very attitudes from their own minds. I’m glad that Sterling got such a stiff punishment. I worry however that those applauding the punishment will go back to pretending that we’re a post-racial society–that they’ll fail to investigate the racist attitudes that persist.

I believe that otherwise good people can be guilty of racism. Upstanding people who love their families can be a party to the disproportionate arresting and jailing of black people. Warm, caring people can judge a population of people based on one person’s actions. Even thoughtful people who are trying to help can traffic in micro-aggressions against people of color. No one is perfect. If we begin the conversation about the racism that nearly all of us are guilty of, rather than branding and railroading well-meaning people whose error is failing to question society’s racist programming, more people may be able to identify and correct that little racist part of themselves.