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[personal profile] sonneillonv
Recently, a man whose blog I read, whom I respect, but don't know quite well enough to claim friendship with, wrote about his experience being smacked in the face with his neighbor's unexamined racism. I commented on his entry, basically apologizing that he can't trust white people, because we smack POC upside the head with our unexamined privilege whenever we get the opportunity, and even those of us who are trying really hard to examine and dismantle that privilege screw up and make it hard to trust us. He responded with thanks for my honesty, and appreciation for a call to 'a higher level of integrity'. I started writing a response, but it got long (as my responses tend to do) so I decided to move it here.

Teo... I think, and I'm not trying to be hyperbolic here, I really believe... that every minority deserves a high standard of integrity from every majority. I believe this is the route to a real, meaningful standard of justice.

Integrity hurts, I won't lie. For me as a white person, a lot of times it means saying, "Yes, I am complicit in this system. Yes, even though I am working to dismantle it, I still benefit from it. Yes, even though I face multiple axes of oppression as well, even though I should know better because I've had some experiences that are similar to yours, I still treated you with prejudice, and it was wrong, and I'm sorry. I am prepared to listen to what you are saying and to do better."

That's not easy, especially when it relates to a subject like racism, which I think we've turned into a kind of bogeyman in this country - we inflate it to the point where the only real racism is Jim Crow-era racism and we are blind to the millions and millions of institutionalized expressions of racism that people of color face every day. We've constructed it as something so drastic and horrible that we behave as though it's worse to be called a racist than to actually commit an act of racism. So when we're accused, we recoil, gasp, clutch our pearls, ask, "how dare you accuse me of such a thing?" And the reality, which is that racism is a systemic ill that all of us are participating in or battling against in a million little ways every day, gets shoved under the rug.

I personally think white people need to shift their view of racism. We are all racist, whether we want to be or not - it's something that's taught to us from a very early age. I am racist. I don't want to be racist. With all my heart, I want to stop being racist right now. I want to be fair and trustworthy and I don't want to hurt anyone. But I have been taught this subtle, insidious racism from the day I was born (I am adopted. I was a white able-bodied infant adopted three days after birth, because white able-bodied infants are what most people who are adopting in America desire. Black infants do not have the same successful adoption rate, so literally from the day I was born, I was benefiting from white privilege, and that is an incredibly humbling thing to unpack). Growing up, the crayola crayon labeled 'flesh' was the same color as my flesh. Most of the characters I saw in cartoons were white (somewhat mitigated by my uncompromising love of Reading Rainbow, and an admiration for Levarr Burton that followed me into being a Trekkie). My parents didn't display obvious racism. They taught me that all people are equal and never gave me a reason to think they believed otherwise. But despite that, I still have racist ideas, racist presumptions, racist cultural markers, inside me. These things exist. I acknowledge that they exist.

And maybe it's because I've acknowledged it that when someone says "Hey, that's racist" my response is to stop what I'm doing and listen. Because I don't see it as a personal indictment on me. To me, it translates as, "Hey, you're participating in the system! Stop it!" And since I don't want to participate in the system, this necessitates an immediate examination of my actions. I think a plurality of white people don't actually want to be racist, they're just not able to see the myriad ways in which racism has been bred into them. Note: I say a plurality, not a majority, because I know there are plenty of white people who are totally comfortable being privileged assholes and there's probably very little help for them. I'm talking here about the folks who WANT to change, but are looking at it from the wrong direction. We've constructed racism as something that only evil, horrible, terrible people do. So when someone says we've committed an act of racism, our response is, "but I'm not an evil, horrible, terrible person! So that's not possible! I don't want to be an evil, horrible, terrible person, so I reject your assertion that I did that!"

What we should be saying is, "Dammit. I fell for the programming again. I'm so fucking sorry. I screwed up. I'll do better." Because in reality, racism is something anyone can do at any time. We're all human, and many of us have multiple axes of privilege and prejudice to navigate, and when we are navigating it, I think that the best way to judge how one should relate to other people is a high standard of integrity. Treat others with a high standard of integrity. You will screw up. You will misstep. But when you begin from a high standard of integrity, I think it actually becomes easier to admit the screw-ups and the missteps, apologize, and try to improve, because that's what the standard is there for in the first place.

One final note: It is worth mentioning that, when I say "we have constructed racism as something only evil, horrible, terrible people do", I am mostly talking about those of us who don't want to be racist. For those who are racist, and unrepentant so, there is a good ol' boys club culture in effect. The reason Teo's neighbor said those blatantly racist things to him, the reason she felt comfortable saying them out loud, is that she had the assumption that everyone around her would agree with her. This is an assumption privileged people often make. It's a marker of privilege. When someone says something like "high functioning Mexicans" or "women are crazy, amiright?" or "and now the gays want to get married, fucking ridiculous" they do so because they are counting on the agreement of others. They are counting on the status quo of their privilege, because that is the status quo that our culture enforces.

Many of us are working to change that, but I thought I should point out the dichotomy, that it is simultaneously excusable to be a racist because of the implicit assumption that all white people are comfortable with racism, and yet racism is something only horrible people do, so to be accused of racism is terribly angering and insulting and should not be tolerated. Above all, the goal is to never have to examine one's privilege. Never allow yourself to be pushed into a situation where you must question whether you really deserve all this leniency. Never let another person's pain affect your expression. So I want to recognize that while I think many white people react this way to these charges because they are genuinely horrified, plenty of them react with anger because that's the best way to put another person back in their place.


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August 2012

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