My Life as a Racist — Confessions of an Oblivious White Person
I’m probably the last one any white person would accuse (or even suspect) of being racist. I have dozens of black friends and colleagues. My mentor is black. I’ve dated black men. I’m on the Diversity Committee for the National Association of Realtors dedicated to upholding the promise of fair housing. I’m even past president of the investment club for the National Association of Black Women in Construction. I love my black friends and have tremendous respect for them. But the fact that I’m itemizing all this is part of the problem!
At 57, I’ve discovered that I am, indeed, a racist. And if you’re a white American, you are probably a racist too. Before you get all no-way-I’m-totally-cool-and-tuned-in-and-black-lives-matter on me, see if you answer “yes” to any of these oblivious white person sins.
Definition of racist: 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.
1. You think being colorblind is a good thing. I did too. But by ignoring people’s skin color, you may well be insensitive. When I invited a black friend to my family Thanksgiving, I didn’t stop to think how he might feel being the only black person in the room. I acknowledged that he was single and was careful to include another single person so he wouldn’t feel left out. Anybody see the problem here?
It only got worse when I started to understand more about “blackness." When forming the investment club, we were supposed to ask friends to join — so who do I ask? Is it ill-considered to only ask black friends to join a club consisting of — aside from me—only black people? If I invite whites, will they think I don’t have any black friends? Is it appropriate for me to tell my white friends that everyone else in the club is black? What’s an unenlightened white person to do?
And the deeper question: why should color be ignored? Are you blind to the fact that one of your friends is Italian and another has blond hair? The things that make us different should be celebrated, right? By ignoring what’s before your eyes, you’re acknowledging that you think it’s a problem that should be politely ignored, not much different, perhaps, from how you’d react to seeing someone who has a run in their stockings or a stain on their necktie.
2. You aren’t aware of the history of blacks in America. Or to be more accurate, you’re aware that they were ripped from their country, beaten, abused, separated from family and held in slavery…but is that ancient history? My Irish family was treated badly when they got here, too, but I think I’m “over it.” Why don’t black people move on from the past and focus on the positive? Why do they want to dwell in the inequities of the past?
Well, this is actually not complicated: things have NOT changed all that much for many blacks. There are many nuances, but in ways that are very difficult for white people to see. The ‘master’ who’s making all the rules is often still a white man. Many compare it to voting rights. Women—WHITE women—who fought for the right to vote had to gain that concession from men, specifically white men who made the laws. If those in power didn’t want women to vote, then tough luck for women! White women had advantages when it came to passing legislation: the white men making the rules were living with the white women who wanted the rules to change. (Ever read Lysistrata?) That’s why even though women won suffrage in 1920, black women couldn’t vote until the 1960s. Most black people either experienced segregation or had family members who had to ride at the back of the bus, use their own water fountain and worship at their own churches. Being treated as a second-class citizen leaves a significant mark — especially when the wound is continually reopened.
3. You believe that heavily publicized incidents of police brutality are isolated incidents of rogue cops. Have you heard of the crime “driving while black?” Black people are 31% more likely to be pulled over than whites. Google it. You’ll find example after disgusting example of racial profiling of not only ordinary citizens, but professionals like doctors, lawyers, U.S. Army Captains, and even politicians detained for no crime except discrimination by skin color. According to the L.A. Times, 1 out of every 1,000 black men and boys will die at the hands of the police. If you’re a cop and you walk around assuming black people are criminals, you’ll simply view their actions through that lens. One black friend described white privilege as “the benefit of the doubt.” For example, if you’re white and running out of a store, the cop may think, “Gee, he’s sure in a hurry.” If you’re black, maybe the cop thinks, “Hey, why is this guy running? Did he just hold up the place?” This is benefit of the doubt versus assumption of guilt.
4. You believe that things are getting better. I’ve heard white friends say, “This is 2020, how are we having riots again, how are we still dealing with police brutality?” Good questions! Here’s another one: “Why was the Vietnam War different from other wars?” Simple: because everything is in our homes because visual media—TV, cellphones, the Internet—brought it to life in all its ugliness. War didn’t change but it was easy to ignore when it was happening “overseas.” Ditto with police brutality. People now capture the incidents and share them with us instantly. It’s not that there are more black people being targeted and abused by police, it’s that we can see it now! In our living rooms! Now you have no choice but to agree that things aren’t getting better. Discrimination is alive and well and doing fine, thank you very much. Anyone with black or brown skin can tell you: it’s not new and it’s not “worse.” Someone recently said to me, “How come all the people protesting this police brutality are white?” I responded easily: “Because they’re the only ones who are surprised by it.”
5. You don’t ask the right questions of black friends — or you are part of the 75% of whites who have no black friends. If you’re not a racist and there’s no race problem in America then let me ask: How many black friends do you have? How many black people are in your workplace? How many black people go to your church? How many live on your block? Ask yourself what forces are keeping us segregated. If men and women are able to live together — and we’re about as different as you can get — then why aren’t blacks and whites living together as easily and transparently? I never thought to ask my black friends about how their experience might differ from my own. To be fair, I’ve also never asked the same of my gay and lesbian friends, my male friends, my Asian friends, etc. I guess I just never realized that this idea of equality is kind of BS, or at the very least, very dependent upon the parties who are interacting.
I was fortunate to participate in a program with ArtsEmerson that explored being black in Boston. The black people in the program shared that they encounter prejudice every single day. One woman told me that at least once every day, someone expresses surprise that she has a college education. Really. In Boston. In 2020. WTF? What’s more, I promise that if you ask any black person if he or she has experienced discrimination, disrespect or abuse because of skin color, that person can give you at least five examples from the past week.
6. You think that black people are just being over-sensitive and misinterpreting comments in the worst possible light. You think white people are just misunderstood and blacks have a chip on their shoulders. Have you heard of a “Freudian slip?” We say something we were thinking instead of what we meant to say. If you don’t stop and question any brainwashing you’ve been subjected to in life, you’ll honestly believe that you are being misunderstood.
If you had to identify the stereotypical black person, what would that person look like? Chances are good that if you’re like most white people, your idea of black people is an idea or concept like: A favorite athlete? Obama? A criminal? Rapper? Pants falling down? Wild eyes, big lips? Violent? Drug dealer? Pimp? As much as we’d like to believe we are not influenced by the media, that we are enlightened and that we make our own decisions, the forces we’ve been subjected to since birth have been quietly villainizing blacks, and it is through that shading that we view them without realizing the effects. It’s the opposite of rose-colored glasses. Even more tragically, blacks have been subjected to the same influences and many have negative feelings about themselves because of it.
7. You don’t believe in white privilege. If you’re a woman, you might relate to the concept of being part of a group that sometimes fights for respect; who can’t assure being taken seriously; who may be patronized, refused entry or even subjected to discrimination. But we don’t always think about it consciously. I just know that when I go into a building supply store, I’m most often going to be ignored, belittled, or leered at. That’s just something I take for granted. But guess what: white men don’t have that problem. Now extrapolate that into every single interaction you have with people who don’t look like you. You may now come close to understanding at least the concept of what blacks mean by white privilege.
What if you were born into a family with tremendous wealth? You never had to think about money. If you wanted to buy something, you bought it. One day you see on television poor people rioting and demanding an increased minimum wage. You think, why all this focus on money? Don’t people realize that money doesn’t solve anything? I still fight with my wife. My kids don’t listen to me. I have to stretch for 20 minutes every day just get my bones to move. If you’re listening to this guy and you had to go without breakfast today so your kids would have enough to eat, what are you thinking? Gee Dude, I’m really sorry about your bones but you really don’t get it.
Being born rich, you may not know what it’s like to be poor any more than a white person knows what it’s like to be black. People treat this incredibly rich person differently than the incredibly poor person— and even differently than a “regular” person-on-the-street. Is our wealthy individual aware of that difference, that deference? You know he must be, and yet he may never stop to think about it. When he can suddenly get a seat at a sold-out concert or restaurant, does he stop to think about how that happened? He must realize that not everyone can do that, but he takes for granted that that’s his life. That’s similar to being white. You can just sail through TSA screening, fairly confident you won’t get pulled for a “random” screening and end up missing your flight — and yet you know that not everyone has that experience. You can drive to work fairly confident that you won’t get pulled over for no apparent reason and be late for work — and yet not everyone can say that. That’s what blacks mean when they talk about white privilege.
8. You thought you were having a bad hair day. I once made the faux pas of telling a black friend that society has taught us all to hate our hair. Her reply was, “Yes, but you’ve never been fired from your job because of it.” I thought: is that a thing? Sure enough, a few minutes at the keyboard produced dozens of examples of blacks of all ages and professions being reprimanded, fired, refused entry and treated badly because of their hair style. Can you imagine losing your job because you showed up to work wearing braids? It’s laughably ridiculous for a white person but it happens to black people more than you might imagine — and once is too often
9. You keep looking for shared experiences. In my struggle to understand what it’s like for black people, I wanted to find a common ground. I wanted to “relate” and show them how we’re not so very different after all. I think there could be some initial benefit for the white person…but not so much for the black person. Perhaps that’s because it trivializes the black experience. Like if I say, “Oh, I got pulled over once, too, and I was hardly speeding at all” as a way to show my black friends that I’ve got troubles too, they’re going to roll their eyes. They know that there’s no way that my interaction with that cop was anything like theirs. They know that I wasn’t pulled over because I was in the wrong neighborhood or because I “looked like” someone who had just committed a crime. As one of my black friends suggested: you just have to believe that we’re having this experience and that it’s not like your experience.
10. You think the problem is too big for any action that you could take. When you start to truly understand the magnitude of the problem and how securely it has been woven into the fabric of society, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. When this happens, remember these quotes. Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch them without doing anything.” And Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Here are some actions that you can take today to start you on the road to understanding:
· Read the book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo.
· Start a dialogue with black friends or acquaintances but listen first — or maybe start with getting some black friends.
· Give your defensiveness a Lunesta. Try not to take your newly-accepted title of racist as a personal attack. If you willfully remain ignorant, then you can beat yourself up.
· Understand that we’re all “us.” If you hurt someone else, it hurts all of us. (Ever see the film, I Heart Huckabees? “We’re all the blanket.”)
· Smile. We can do this, together.
This article was edited and made more readable by Carl Zukroff. Thank you Carl.