The last time I wrote about race, I got some pushback, kind but stubborn, against the idea that I would call myself racist under any circumstances. “Surely you don’t believe other races are inferior,” went the reply. “You can’t possibly be racist.”
Webster’s defines racism like so:
a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.
It fits. Not the second part, but I show discrimination in my everyday life, whether I mean to or not. (And, to be clear, I don’t mean to.)
Now before you run off in disgust, the idea that I’m even typing these things makes me feel really gross. But the fact remains: I live a pretty monochromatic life. Segregation is no longer legal, but it still happens all. the. time. I see white people on tv, in ads, white faces on most of my kids’ dolls. Most of my friends are white, not because I don’t want to be friends with people of color, but because I simply don’t know very many of them.
So, while intellectually I know that we’re all made in the image of God, I’m fighting years of indoctrination that says racism used to be a thing, but we’re all color blind and enlightened now.
The reality is, it is far easier to move about this world as a white person. I’m less likely to be stopped as I’m driving, I’m less likely to die in childbirth by a wide margin, and as my son grows, I don’t have to coach him on how he should dress in order to be perceived as less threatening. Nobody shadows me when I shop. Frankly, I don’t have to think about my race at all. I’m just a regular person.
And therein lies my racism. “I’m just a regular person.” I have friends (not many) who are black. But I’m not white, I’m just regular.
You guys, of course I’m not “racist” in the sense I typically hear it used. Almost nobody is. (Well. I mean, there are certain prominent national figures, but anyway.) But the racism I’m dealing with in my own heart is just as dangerous—maybe more because it’s covert. I’m reading a book called White Fragility right now. I’ll probably have more to say about it before I’m done (I’m only about a third in right now), but it’s making me intensely uncomfortable in some really important ways. When I tell myself, “we’re all just people, I’m teaching my children to be kind to all people no matter the skin color,” I’m doing something really bad: I’m lumping myself in with black/indigenous/latino people. I’m projecting my experience onto people who aren’t white, assuming they’ve been living in the same world and experiencing it in the same way.
We haven’t been living in the same world. I’ve been living in a mostly-segregated white-dominated world inside my white body, which affords me a much easier experience than living in a mostly-segregated white-dominated world inside a black body would be.
It’s so fast and easy to hear “racism” and think “KKK” and instantly dismiss it. “That’s not me! Those racists are awful! All those burning crosses and stuff…” And then (again, because white) I can walk on with my day and not give another thought to it.
But the KKK isn’t the kind of racism most people of color are dealing with. We need to reframe how we look at race.
Just being “unlike the KKK” is far low to set the bar.
People of color aren’t (usually) dealing with overt, noisy white supremacy; they’re dealing with systemic racism—the kind that means the poverty rate for black people is double or more that of white people in most states. Incarceration is similarly (relatedly) terrible.
So… we can say these discrepancies are a matter of racism or we can call them a matter of life choices. After all—if you’re choosing not to work, you may end up in poverty, and if you steal something, you might wind up in jail.
If I argue this problem is not systemic racism but one of poor choices, that America is a meritocracy and you get what you earn, then rationally black and latino people make WAY worse choices than white people do. If white people make better choices than people of color, how could I possibly defend my stance that we’re all created equal? If I believe black people are disproportionately poor and imprisoned because they make bad choices that white people don’t make, then I am a racist by the classic, ugly, white-supremacist definition in which I believe white people are qualitatively better than other colors.
Let me be clear: I think it’s systemic racism and not poor choices that land too many black and brown people in poverty and jail.
And I’m part of the problem.
Because, while I do believe our souls are the same, I don’t pay enough attention to the way our experiences are different. And I’m still grappling with what to do about it. Clearly, I can read more, listen more, be curious and not defensive. But I don’t know how to even wrap my head around the policies and systems that are all kinds of wrong.
I do know we need to talk about it more. So here I am. I’ve probably said several things in this piece that I didn’t realize were racially problematic because I’m only learning. No pretty bows, just opening up the conversation. I would love for us to define racism as something other than “hate for other races.” Not feeling hate is not the same as equal treatment. Let’s raise the bar.
This post is part of my series, 31 days of speaking the truth. You can find the whole list of them here on the first post of the series.