Are you racist? That’s quite a loaded question. And an important one. I’m sure you have an answer of one kind or another. But never mind that for a minute. Think about how it feels to be asked that question.
I’ll tell you how I feel: instantly defensive. I’m guessing it’s a pretty typical white person response. Here’s what I think about white people. I think we all know, deep down, no matter how hard we not to, that we have racist thoughts and feelings and reactions. And if we’re thoughtful and conscientious people, we’re ashamed of them. We know we shouldn’t be racist. So we don’t want to be thought of as racist. The unspoken thought process goes like this: racism is bad. Racists are bad people. I must be a bad person if I’m racist. I don’t want to think about this any more.
This defensive reaction isn’t going to help us fight racism. It makes us shut down whenever conversation turns to questions of race. How to get around it?
There are a thousand answers to this question. Here’s just one. The word “racism” is a big, knotty, knarly, tangled ball of yarn. It means too many different things at once. For some, being racist means that you outwardly and unashamedly diss people for the color of their skin. That’s explicit racism. There’s also implicit racism — the bundle of prejudices we all carry, even if we don’t want to. And there’s institutional racism, which is the social, economic, and political systems that combine to oppress people based on skin color. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One answer to the question “Are you racist?” is that we are all swimming in racism. That’s what “institutional racism” means. How could it not get in us? So each and every one of us could answer “Yes” and not be wrong.
And white people, we kind of need to get used to answering “Yes” and admitting that we do at times have racist thoughts, feelings, and reactions. And we make mistakes. We need to desensitize ourselves to the question and get over this defensive reaction so that we can have thoughtful conversations about race. So that we can change.
On the other hand, we’d better be careful what we tell our brains. Do we really want to be telling our brains that we’re racist? Maybe we need a different question. Or multiple different questions. Or a thoughtful answer that isn’t a yes/no answer.
This is the part of the blog post where I am supposed to say something insightful. But today I don’t feel like I have good answers. Plus, other people have already done it better than me. So here are a couple links to some thoughtful articles.
- “How Not To Be A Doofus When Accused of Racism”
- The Combahee River Collective Statement (an intro to institutional racism)
- Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part I (a racism 101)