I want to preface this by saying that I am a white American, and the target audience for this particular piece is any white adult in the USA who is against racism but may not have really dived into racial dynamics and anti-racism very much yet. If you’re a kid, you can still read this, but some things may not quite apply to you, and you may not have some of the information this piece assumes the reader has, which might make it difficult to understand in some places.
With that context established, I would like to invite you to take a moment to prepare yourself for this content. Remember that America was in a very real and literal sense built on the backs of slaves on land stolen through genocide of several different groups, many of whom are still here and fighting for the return of their ancestral lands, because unlike Africa, this continent was never decolonized. Remember that as history progressed, the powers that kept people of color down persisted, changed forms, and were enacted on every nonwhite racial group to arrive here.
These powers and influences are still all around us. We are steeping in them. Remind yourself that you are merely human, which means these influences have impacted the way you think in ways beyond your awareness. Remind yourself that it is up to us, today’s white people in America, to do whatever we can to correct the way we think about and handle race, because no one is going to do it for us. We can’t usually do that while feeling comfortable. That means this piece will likely be uncomfortable to read at times, and that’s okay, because that is part of how progress towards racial equity happens. This kind of discomfort doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means you’re an improving person, which is truly the best you can do. Ready? Here we go.
The first prerequisite for doing anti-racist work on a personal scale is this: We must acknowledge the extreme levels of racism swirling all around us in the USA.
Our culture, society, and government are racist in function and value white people above people of any other race. We can see this in the numbers, with black people being disproportionately turned away for jobs and promotions, indigenous women being murdered at an astounding rate, black men and boys being disproportionately murdered by police, and so on. We can see it in the actions of our government during the lifetimes of today’s population, such as the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, and of course the Trump administration’s despicable handling of immigrant and refugee families at the southern border, enacting atrocities which aren’t being applied to white immigrant and refugee families arriving from predominantly white nations.
We can also see the pervasiveness of racism by opening our eyes and following Americans of color on blogs and social media, and by opening our hearts to the truth of what people of color are saying about their daily experiences with racism of various scales both to our faces and all over the internet every day. Too many of us brush these things away as exceptions, as not true, or as not significant. Until we accept the fact that people of color experience racism daily on scales that range from racist comments, to systemic threats to one’s livelihood and home, to various forms of racially charged murder and other bodily harm, we cannot begin to do our necessary work because we are limiting ourselves through willful ignorance. The evidence is there; there is no valid excuse to ignore it now that we are adults and responsible for our own knowledge.
Most of us white Americans grew up not seeing any of this, perhaps even being taught that racism was a thing of the past. Indeed, many American high school history and sociology textbooks happily point out the “post-racial” nature of America as if this concept was somehow true. But, as white adults, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and make sure we understand reality now. We have the most power out of any racial demographic to uphold or change the way systems work here. We have so much power, in fact, that both our actions and our inaction matter and have real consequences for ourselves and others. We must use this power responsibly and with intention. To do that, we need to learn about and acknowledge the reality of racial inequity in America. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, or our neighbors and community members of color will continue to suffer. Their continued suffering will be on us, just as the suffering of their ancestors was on our ancestors.
The second prerequisite is this: We must understand that we (white Americans) all enact racism, often without even realizing it.
The idea that we white people could grow up surrounded by so much suffering and not even see it astounds me, and yet this appears to be a frequent experience. We don’t suffer due to our race, so we don’t know what it is like and have no personal evidence that it happens to others. We weren’t adequately educated about racial dynamics in school, so we have little to no academic knowledge of it. We were raised by generations that believed racial blindness was the answer to fixing racism (it’s actually racist), so we have little to no immediate community culture that supports the concept of racial harm being real.
So, it makes sense that when we were growing up white in America, we didn’t really have any way to know about the existence of racial inequities, much less which specific actions or systems cause racial suffering for people of any given nonwhite race.
If we don’t know which actions or systems cause people of color to suffer, then it is impossible to conclude that we are avoiding doing or contributing to those actions or systems. We can’t fix what we can’t recognize, so we are given no means by which to prevent ourselves from inadvertently furthering the racial harms in America. In other words, the system we were born into creates racism within ourselves beyond our own awareness, regardless of our good intentions. This in turn means that inaction with regards to our own self-education as adults supports racism, both within ourselves and the structures in place around us.
On the occasion that a person of color tries to explain the existence or experience of racism to us before we have done the work to educate ourselves, and before we have accepted that racism real and “post-racial America” is a myth, that person’s words are so at odds with everything we think we know that we tend not to believe them. Nobody likes being treated as if their experiences didn’t happen, and it’s got an extra layer of oppression when there are racial dynamics involved like this. This is a common example of a way in which white people are directly racist to people of color without even knowing it. This particular kind of racism makes many people of color understandably less inclined to talk to white people about racism.
Here is a more specific example of unwitting racism from a study described in a post from Psychology Today:
Race can also play a role in evaluations of performance and achievement. In one experiment, law firm partners were asked to evaluate a memorandum supposedly written by a third-year associate named Tom Meyer. Half of the partners were led to believe the Meyer was black and the other half that he was white. The partners found twice as many spelling and grammatical errors in the memorandum they thought was written by “black” Tom Meyer than “white” Tom Meyer. And their comments suggested very different assessments of the associate’s capacity: White Tom Meyer was described as having “potential” and “good analytical skills”; black Tom Meyer by contrast, “needs lots of work” and is “average at best.” One partner stated he “couldn’t believe [the associate] went to NYU.” It is doubtful the partners who read and commented on the memorandum saw themselves as racist, but subconscious ideas about academic ability clearly guided their appraisals.Excerpt From “Racial Dynamics in Education and Health Care” by By Rachel D. Godsil and Linda R. Tropp
You and I, being mere humans, are not immune to this phenomenon. Accepting that we have these internal biases allows us to seek them out and work to dismantle them. We can’t do that work without accepting and recognizing our biases for what they are.
With all that in mind, we can begin to do the work to discern and dismantle racism in ourselves and our immediate spheres of influence.
We cannot do this work until we give ourselves a basic understanding of what the heck is going on. We must give ourselves the education that the public system failed to provide. Once you begin to have an understanding of racial dynamics, you will be better equipped to direct your own re-education, and to have enough context to do things like look up answers to why a person of color told you that something you did or said was racist. This will be a lifelong process with a steep initial learning curve. Why not get started now, with everything shut down anyway?
Here is your initial homework to get you started:
- Look up the racial demographics of your state, county, and city.
- Find out which indigenous people lived in your area before colonization, and which do now.
- Pick one of the racial groups you found above.
- Look up “what is it like to be [x] in America” on the internet. Find something written on the subject by someone of that race, and read it.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have an initial idea of the racial situation of your city.
- Bonus: Repeat steps 3 and 4 for your the races in your whole county or state.
For those who prefer books, check your local library’s online catalog for downloadable e-books and audio books to maintain isolation to fight this global pandemic. A suggestion to get you started: “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito,” by Brian D. Behnken and Gregory D. Smithers (part of the “Racism in American Institutions” series).