As a cis white man who grew up in a middle-class family in Germany, racism was never a topic I had to deal with. Racists only existed on TV, mostly in the US, and they were all terrible people. Never in the world would it have occurred to me that I might be racist, too. Well, let me walk you through the journey that made me realize a few things about myself.
While racism was never a topic when I lived in Germany, it became a slightly more frequent discussion when I moved to London six years ago. We went through Unconscious Bias Training in the first week at my new job, which is the first time I remember actually thinking about the unintentional and deeply ingrained stereotypes I have. That said, it was fairly brief and kept uncontroversial, so I didn’t really have to confront any (un)conscious racist (or sexist) biases.
A few months later I came across the Parable of the Polygons. It’s a super cute interactive simulation of triangles and squares that I highly recommend looking at! Turns out the shapes are slightly shapist: while they do prefer to live in a diverse neighbourhood, they also don’t want to live in a neighborhood where less than a third of their neighbors are like them. When I played with the simulation, I was surprised to see that you always end up with a segregated society unless you configure the shapes to actively move out of homogeneous neighborhoods. This was a huge lightbulb moment for me: If I want a diverse and integrated society, I need to actively seek that out. If I’m happy to live in an all-white neighborhood, I’m part of the problem.
Another lightbulb moment was when I understood the concept of privilege. Sure, I could always see that the average white person is more privileged than the average person of color, but I still got defensive at the idea of white privilege. Surely Barack Obama is more privileged than me and we can’t generalize like that? If you have the same reaction as me, go read Explaining White Privilege To A Broke White Person. That article helped me realize that privilege is a lot more nuanced, and that there are indeed lots of aspects of life that are easier for all white people. If you want a more visual explanation, check out this video.
That said, it wasn’t until last year that I finally got (a bit) out of my comfort zone and started more actively participating in Diversity & Inclusion groups at work and actively seeking out more resources. A few that stood out were this TED talk on Intersectionality and reading White Fragility. White Fragility does a great job at taking apart why we white people are so uncomfortable talking about race. Basically, we always think of racism in terms of individuals who are terrible people doing terrible things, when actually racism is also systemic and ingrained in all parts of our society. If you are a white person growing up in a racist society, you are racist. There’s no way around it. That said, it’s not your fault that you turned out racist after being raised by racist parents, after being taught a racist curriculum, and after watching all those racist movies. The sooner you accept that you’re racist and get over your guilt, the sooner you can become aware of your own biases and actually enact positive change in yourself and in society.
If you feel a bit attacked right now and are getting defensive, that’s okay, I certainly felt the same when reading White Fragility. It seemed to me that we’re changing the definition of racism, and that it might be better to come up with a new word for the “good racists” like me. Then again, what’s actually the difference between Trump and me when it comes to racism? Trump has said that he’s “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world”, so I guess he’s unconscious of his racism, or at least the full extent of it, just like me. Of course, I can safely say that his racism is a lot more overt than mine, but at the end of the day I’m just trying to draw a line between the “bad racists” like Trump and the “good racists” like me in order to feel better, which doesn’t really help the cause. The White Supremacy Pyramid is a good visualization of how society draws such a line between acceptable and unacceptable racist behaviors. I believe that Trump and Police Brutality are just the tip of the iceberg, and if we really want to achieve social justice, every white person needs to accept that they have racist biases and are profiting from systems of oppression, rather than just point the finger at others. I’m glad to have realized that I’m racist. For example, I can now acknowledge that every time I see a new person, I immediately have biases and associations based on their race, but only after accepting that can I try to treat everyone equitably. Just to give another example of where I’ve realized racism in myself, years ago I would exclude black people on dating apps since they were “not my type”. This is definitely racist, and in my experience this preference just went away after realizing how much society and my upbringing has influenced who I find attractive (this is not just limited to race, by the way).
I’m certainly still at the beginning of my journey of uncovering my racism, but I hope some of you found my thoughts useful. As a white person, writing or talking about race certainly makes me anxious that I might say something wrong (White Fragility in action!) or that I might be engaging in virtue signalling. However, I know that silence is also a bad option (same as only sharing social media posts, I see even the most racist of my social media acquaintances doing that…), so I simply embraced the awkward and tried my best. Would love to hear your feedback!
Let me leave you with this quote by Martin Luther King Jr which seems highly relevant right now:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963