I'm Racist, You're Racist, We're All Racist Here
We can’t get away from the fact that our children are only two generations away from legal segregation. That’s not the distant past, that’s grandparents. No one could think that’s long enough to heal centuries of oppression, enslavement, and institutionalized inequality. And it’s certainly not long enough to believe that racism doesn’t affect every one of us, whether we recognize it or not. Pretending or wishing that racism isn’t a part of us, collectively and individually, won’t make it go away. That doesn’t mean it will. I believe we can overcome it. But we have a long, hard row to hoe before then.
And I believe that the first hope of fighting this disease is to acknowledge it within ourselves. The word “racist” is usually thrown around as a weapon, an insult, or a political tool. It’s practically a dirty word, and a loaded one at that. But to call myself racist is not a personal attack on myself; it’s acknowledging that I’m affected, as we all are, by our not-as-distant-as-we-think history and our not-as-over-it-as-we-wish culture. It means I see the symptoms of the disease in my own life and in my own self. It means that even though I may not struggle with racism as deeply or publicly or in the same ways as others, I am not immune.
How does racism manifest itself for me, then? I’ve given this a lot of thought, and the symptoms are generally pretty subtle. Sometimes I feel frustrated when someone of another race is offended by something that I don’t see as racially offensive. Sometimes I don’t dig deep enough to understand someone’s background enough to empathize with them. Sometimes I don’t recognize my own white privilege, and when I do, I rarely consider what I might do about it. Sometimes I fall into the trap of believing that treating everyone equally is enough. Sometimes I get tired of the constant struggles over race in our society and want to just pretend like they don’t exist.
Some people may not call those things racism, but I do. As a middle-class white person, I have the luxury of sticking my head in the sand if I want to, for an hour, a week, a year, without having to directly deal with racial issues in my daily life. And the fact that that option sometimes appeals to me, and that I sometimes let myself indulge in it, is evidence that the disease of racism is alive within me. Members of my human family are suffering, and I want to look the other way? If I don’t own that, if I don’t call those things out for the symptoms of the disease that they are, then I am not fully doing my part to battle racism, no matter how many Race Unity Day functions I help plan. I’m still acting as a carrier.
So I try to acknowledge the signs and symptoms of racism within me, and I do so without self-flagellation or self-righteousness. Judgment does no good here. One thing my inclusive upbringing gave me is a deep sense that we’re all in this together. Some members of our human family are afflicted more obviously (and often obliviously) with racism. Others are affected more subtly (and often silently) by racism. But we all have a responsibility to battle this disease, in ourselves and in our society. If I can’t acknowledge that I’m vulnerable, that racism is something that constantly needs to be monitored and treated in my life, then how can I expect others to examine themselves and acknowledge their own racist tendencies?
Nothing about this is simple or easy. Just defining the word “racism” is about as complex as it gets. And it’s hard to talk about these things. Conversations about racial issues can be difficult, awkward, inadvertently confrontational, and unintentionally hurtful. But conversations must be had if we ever hope to heal. Voices must be heard, even when they’re harsh or hard to understand. Medicine doesn’t always taste good. Treatment is sometimes as painful as the illness. But we can’t keep putting band-aids on bruises and ignore the fact that our society is being eaten away by this disease. We can’t pretend that racism doesn’t affect and infect each and every one of us. We have to get uncomfortable and have the hard conversations, even if we’re not sure how. And that includes having the hard conversations with ourselves.