I’m not a racist!
When I was 19-years-old I went on a Spring Break trip to the Harambee Center in Pasadena. We spent the week working in different parts of the city, doing home visits with some families in Watts, and discussing various issues relating to race and reconciliation. On our first night in Pasadena I remember listening to a white man talk about race and he opened with this line to a group of 50 college students, the vast majority of whom were white: ”You are all racists. Every last one of you.”
Obviously not one for easing into things, that guy. I was sitting near the back and I remember thinking, “WHAT??? Are you kidding me with this? I am not a racist. My boyfriend in high school was totally Korean. How could I be a racist if I dated someone who wasn’t white? I don’t think so. No way.” I’d like to say that I listened with an open ear and thus began a lifelong quest of inner examination and contemplation surrounding race. But I didn’t. I completely tuned him out, full of my own righteous indignation.
Last week in Florida yet another jury let yet another white man off the hook for killing yet another black teenager. I’ve served on a criminal jury myself so I understand some of the nuances of the law and how hard it can be to convict someone of something when you are splitting hairs over definitions of degree and struggling to decipher the legal lingo. But when the interview with juror number 8 was aired and she claimed that race was not a factor whatsoever in the jury deliberations because “nobody brought up race,” news sources seemed to agree that it was settled then; that because nobody mentioned race during the deliberations, it clearly wasn’t a factor. Fair and square. Done deal. If it’s not spoken or outwardly apparent, it doesn’t exist.
Nobody likes to be called a racist and at least part of our problem comes in the definition. Racism, as defined by Merriam Webster, is (1) the poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race and (2) the belief that some races of people are better than others. Most of us, when considering whether or not we are racist, look to that first definition. Racist? Not a chance! We have never treated someone poorly or, heaven forbid, resorted to violence against someone because of their race. We wouldn’t dream of it. Taking stock of that first definition leaves most of us feeling like our conscience is clear and ready to defy anyone who would challenge us on it, like I did in Pasadena more than a decade ago.
But how about the second half of the definition? The belief that some races of people are better than others. This is where the line starts to get a little fuzzy. Our first response might still be, “Me? No way! I don’t think that way!” But upon closer examination we see another story playing out.
Take for example the studies that show that children, even black children, have a clear preference for white dolls over black ones — a distressing truth originally found in the 1940s but STILL remains the case all these years later.
Or the fact that most people on welfare are white but that most Americans think the majority of welfare recipients are black.
Or the findings of scientist, Eric Hehman, that President Obama’s blackness has an inverse effect on his perceived level of “Americanness.”
Our workforce still remains strongly stratified by race. We continue to perpetuate the myth that black fathers are more absent than most when recent findings actually show that black fathers are more involved with their kids than any other race in the US. And more than 40% of Americans think it’s ok to wear blackface on Halloween.
This, here, is the critical juncture. This is the point at which we either keep shouting “not me! not me! not me!” or we admit that even though we may not fully understand it, we are a part of this. We are the dominant race in a country whose kids are choosing white dolls over black ones; whose preschoolers make the black kids play the part of the “bad guys” on the playground; whose black citizens are imprisoned for drug possession at a wildly disproportionate rate compared to their white counterparts; whose white students routinely outnumber Latino and Black students in the gifted programs in our schools despite the fact that science shows giftedness to occur at exactly the same rate across all racial groups. The belief that some races of people are better than others evidently exists at least on some level, although it might be simmering so far beneath the surface for some of us that we are unaware of it.
So even if we have never uttered a single word that could be construed as racist, even if we believe ourselves to be entirely above reproach, we have to be willing to look at the larger landscape and see that something is amiss. And whether we are aware of it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we want it to be this way or not, we are an inextricable part of that landscape. That is where I found myself about a year after that night in Pasadena; scratching my head and saying, “huh, there might be something more to this than I realized.” But I had to stop fighting first. I had to settle down and stop defending myself so ardently. Only then was I was able to begin the hard work of digging down through those deeper, more painful, layers of my own prejudices and (gasp!) racism.
Stay tuned for Stage Two: Get this thing off of me!