Unintentionally, I was Still Raised to be Racist: Constructed Fear, White Fragility, and How I Keep Engaging

Photo by Filip Zrnzević of Les Sybelles, Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves, France

Last night on the phone with a friend I was discussing my process of detaching from whiteness (because it’s different for everyone). I was talking about how my mom was a huge influence in me becoming dedicated to working towards social justice, but unintentionally, I was still raised to be racist.

In my family we didn’t have conversations about race at the dinner table. We didn’t talk about what it meant to be white in this world. Conversations about my roots extended to my Nana (mom’s mom), but not much further back. We didn’t talk about how structural inequity made it possible for us to acquire the intergenerational wealth we have as an upper middle class white family living in the midwest suburbs.

Robin DiAngelo recently wrote an essay titled, “White People Are Still Raised to Be Racially Illiterate. If We Don’t Recognize the System, Our Inaction Will Uphold It.” I would edit the title to read: “White People Are Still Raised to be Racist.” But that would be really triggering for us white people. “Racially illiterate” sounds nicer than “racist.” We really don’t like being called “racist.”

In the conversation with my friend, I continued, “All white people are racist.” My friend hesitated with this.

He said, “Well, I have a hard time with that because then that means we are all just doomed. Like, we are just white and we can’t do anything about it.”

If we are just starting to learn about how white supremacy functions in our society — how it was created, how it continues, how we perpetuate it — this is an understandable response. I used to think that we are not born from the womb racist...but now that I am thinking about it, if we consider how intergenerational trauma works, we might be. Do we inherit intergenerational racism?

Race is social construct, which means our society created it, it’s an invention, and our society ensures that power held by a particular race, the white race, continues. While race is a construct, it still has tangible impacts.

Race as a construct has physical, mental, emotional, and psychological impacts. Like money. Like marriage. Like gender. All make-believe ideas that the wealthy elite who colonized our country invented to keep themselves, cis white males, in power (I learned this from the podcast Seeing White by Scene on Radio, hosted by John Biewan and Chenjarai Kumenyika after Kenya Budd, an equity and inclusion consultant in Portland, Oregon introduced me to it).

Constructs of race, class, and gender born out of settler colonialism are responsible for systemic, institutional, and individual oppression. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc. cannot be wished, meditated, or cleansed away. We have to dedicate our time, the same way we dedicate our time to the gym or spending time with friends, to learning about how these violent constructs operate, so we can be proactive about causing as little harm as possible on a daily-basis. I am grateful and forever indebted to the countless Black womxn, Indigenous womxn, and womxn of color who have taught me this: Rachel Cargle, Layla F. Saad, L. Glenise Pike, Sarah from Do You Consider Yourself a Feminist, Kenya Budd, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike, Winona LaDuke, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, and so many more.

Learning how we can be less harmful and how we can step into our own individual power to create a more equitable world needs to become a norm — a basic human practice. You don’t need a huge online platform, a massive Instagram following, or a podium to make ripples that matter.

Unchecked whiteness is violent. We are so accustomed to thinking about the world through our experiences, which are very white experiences, and we are failing at being actively conscious about the ways our actions, thoughts, words, gestures may be racist. We are conditioned and raised to be racist because of the society that we grow up in. It doesn’t matter if your parents are on the front lines of protests, or if they surround you with books written by authors of color, or if they know it’s bad to say the n-word. Racism is embedded in white people from childhood on, despite parents, like mine, who teach their kids that “everyone is equal.”

Kenya Budd, who has been pivotal for my process, was the one who first encouraged me to “detach from whiteness” — this is her phrasing. When she first encouraged me to talk about my process I was viscerally stressed out. The idea of being public about my process scared the shit out of me. I didn’t want people to know I was racist or how I had to work on my racism.I didn’t want to be transparent about my process because I wanted people to think I was so “woke.” My main concern was, “what would my friends of color think?” Which shows that I was extremely worried about how I would be perceived. Sure, we are all worried about other people’s perceptions of us, but this kind of fear is specific. It is a different kind of fear. It is a selfish and false fear that burns your lungs and wraps around your throat — a functioning tool of white supremacy. This fear is rooted in white fragility — it is a strong, violent, paralyzing phenomenon that keeps us frozen in inaction and silence.

It’s phenomenal because this fear is completely imagined and false. There is no actual threat. Our white livelihood is never actually at stake. But because we are people who live in a world free of threat, to imagine being called “racist” really feels like it is threatening. But what we don’t dig up and look closer at is that this triggered reaction is actually our defensiveness engaging due to the fact that we know we benefit from white supremacy, and if we are called out for racism, that means the system we benefit from is being put into question. This means that we would have to analyze and deconstruct everything that we have ever known — the system that we grew up in.

So, it’s the threat of our power being questioned that we fear. We need to realize that we actually have nothing to fear from questioning our privilege because ultimately, white supremacy does not benefit our long-term well-being either. It is true, we can walk into grocery stores, down sidewalks, into airports, restaurants and bars, or even police departments, and feel free of threat. What we fear is a perceived threat of being called “racist” because we fear being held accountable. We need to learn how to be okay with being held accountable. It can feel really destabilizing for us, as people who have been so comfortable our whole lives, to suddenly be jarred into questioning who we are and how we were raised. But we aren’t special. We were all raised in this country built from ongoing colonization, and these structures have very real impacts and influences on our psyches and behaviors.

This is why Representative Mark Meadows got so defensive and angry when Representative Rashida Tlaib rightfully called him out for his racist action of using Lyn Patton as a prop at the dark circus that was the Michael Cohen hearing. Desperate pleas from Rep. Meadows pressured Chairman Cummings to request Rep. Tlaib to provide assurance that it wasn’t her intention to call Meadows a racist. And here we see the chain of command: white men have power over Black men, who have power over women of color.

What constitutes a racist then? If undeniably, Meadows has committed a racist act, but is not being held accountable for it, then what does racism look like? Illustrated in this short six minute interaction between congress members is an example of how all white people are prone to racist acts. But we can never talk about it because those in power want us to remain silent, as we saw in Meadows’ response during this hearing.

People of color, Black and Indigenous folx (BIPOC) are reprimanded at best, and met with violence at worst, when they speak out about how they have witnessed or have experienced/are experiencing racism. We need to believe BIPOC when they say something or someone is racist — not get defensive, which is a characteristic of white supremacy. Check out this list of characteristics of white supremacy culture by Tema Okun. I found it helpful because as a white person I struggle with worship of the written word, as in, if these characteristics weren’t written down for me, like written proof, I might have a harder time accepting and taking in the information as real. Somewhat similar to how men have said to me several times, “Patriarchy is real? I’m sexist? Okay, where’s your proof? Where’s the science? Where is it written down?” Even though they literally said or did something sexist. Even though it has been written down. Many times.

Convincing disbelieving men of sexism is a losing battle I refuse to engage in anymore, but I do believe it is white people’s job to engage other white people in conversations about racism. I have found it’s not only most effective to speak from personal experience about my own racism, but also that this is the only way. It is a necessary reminder to me to never forget that I am not exempt from being racist. The danger of being steeped in this work is that white supremacy likes to be comfortable, and I might one day think I have made it out of racism, or that I figured it out. I have to consistently be committed to discomfort. If I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about white supremacy I know something is off, and that I need to address what’s going on in myself.

While to some degree I have found it has become easier to talk about these issues because with more practice anything becomes easier, I also recognize that I do have some discomfort still. I know I am still learning and that means I am bound to fuck up. While this is a fear-inducing thought, I am choosing daily to not let constructed fear rooted in white fragility stop me from engaging.

Once we all accept that being called “racist” is not the worst thing that could ever happen to us, we can start co-creating safer spaces so that BIPOC like Representative Tlaib can speak their truth without consequence.

I have come to speak openly about being conditioned to be racist, not because this is a point of pride for me, not because I am comfortable with this, but because it is important to recognize that you don’t have to be in the Ku Klux Klan to uphold white supremacy. If we want to dismantle white supremacy, if we want to build an equitable future, then we need to acknowledge how white supremacy manifests in our own behavior. I consider myself someone who works towards anti-racism and at the same time I acknowledge how white supremacy impacts my thinking and behavior.

In our own time as white people, we need to peel back the layers, allow the racist thoughts to sit a little longer at the forefront of our mind instead of immediately repressing them. When you stereotype someone, when you make a judgment about a stranger, when you assume something, look at it from all angles. Instead of thinking “bad thoughts! go away!” let yourself look at your racist thought. Sit with it. Be uncomfortable if that’s how you feel. We can look at how racism shows up in us, examine it, question it, and find the source, so that we can rewire ourselves. Our racism won’t go away by ignoring it.

If you want to start your process, or go deeper into your process of detaching from whiteness, while simultaneously being supported and held accountable by a cohort of fellow white people working on doing the same, check out my series, “Detaching from Whiteness.”