This man speaks a fundamental truth about racism in America, but he unfairly tars all whites with the same brush. I, and many white people I know, do not deny that America is still racist, and do accept blacks’ accounts of experiencing racism. I grew up in a deeply racist community. My unconscious, visceral-response feelings are still racist, and when they beat my conscious mind to reacting, I’m ashamed. My conscious mind knows better. All that I have seen, heard, read about the damage racism has done and does to blacks, and all the science and philosophy I’ve learned, which erases race as anything biologically real, and the black people I’ve known, have planted opposing emotions of compassion and admiration, and have prompted me to be vigilant against racism in my own and others’ behavior. I’ll never be perfect — I will always miss some evidences of racism, for the very reasons he gives: it rarely affects me directly, and we live in a hegemonic system in which white is the default. Though I can’t possibly know what it’s like to live as a person of color in America, I believe blacks’ experiences of racism. I agree that the society is institutionally racist. I consider it both a personal and professional duty to combat racism when and where I can.
His commentary demonstrates the need for true multicultural education in America. That doesn’t mean tacking on Cinco-de-Mayo celebrations to elementary school calendars, or including a short story by Toni Cade Bambara in the middle-school anthology. It means giving all children an anthropological education that allows them to “see the water they swim in” — to become aware that there is more than one way to *be* in the world, and that they should step back from all cultures, especially their own, find the shared and unshared, the harmful and the beneficial. Most of all, they should attend to the distribution and mechanisms of power. I open my course for future teachers with a reading by James Paul Gee that promotes just such an education. In my language and gender course, I address Americans’ reluctance to talk about power at all and about power imbalances that reward some at the cost of others.
When facing someone like Metta’s aunt, we have to ask: are you capable of self criticism, and are you willing to look at your character flaws honestly, even if it dings your ego? If the answer to that question is no, there is no sense talking any further with that person. If it is yes, then the person needs a diet of those facts which will correct their misapprehension of racism in America.
Lastly, I want to point out a definition difference that may be causing miscommunication: Metta writes that accusations of reverse racism that he hears can’t be valid, because an oppressed group cannot oppress the oppressor. I think some people separate racism from power, thinking of it as an individual trait centered in feelings rather than behavior (behavior then arises from the feelings), the feelings in this case being hatred, disrespect, undervaluing of a person or group because of a trait categorized as a racial trait. If you see racism this way, anyone can be racist. An individual of an oppressed race can reject or even kill a member of the oppressing race out of racial hatred.
Others see racism as essentially connected to the ability to express racial hatred through power, through oppression of that group. If this is the only kind of racism, then powerless people by definition cannot be racist.
I don’t want to argue over which definition is correct. I want to point out the difference, because I think it worsens disagreements over whether blacks can be racist towards whites. I’ve always thought of racism in the first way, which made it difficult for me to understand why blacks would deny that a black person can feel racism towards whites. Once I grasped the difference, I understood why those who espouse the second definition get so angry when someone accuses blacks of reverse racism.
I don’t mean that a reverse-racism argument is a valid way to contest the grievances expressed by black people. It is not. So many such grievances are supported by facts on the ground, that you’d need a much more powerful argument.