Thank you for your thoughtful article. While short slogans grab people’s attention well, we very much need to have these ideas articulated so that we can have a conversation. Too much of what I see is just people tweeting past one another.
Please don’t try to protect my feelings; that is my job. That said, very few people listen to logic or reason if one begins by insulting or offending them. I doubt that’s unique to Whites. It’s important to be mindful of other’s feelings — if one wants to get one’s message across. So while I am about to write about White people’s feelings, it’s not because I think you ought tiptoe around them, but because I think what you’re saying ought be heard.
Racism is an ugly word, because it is itself ugly. Certainly racism is not gone from America, but the idea of it being acceptable is gone from nearly everyone’s minds. No one, regardless of race, wants to be called a racist. Very few people believe that they are.
I, I am sorry to say, am a racist. I don’t like it, but I have not successfully shaken it. I believe absolutely and passionately that all people are equal and that failing to treat people equally because of a person’s complexion is unjust. Racism is wrong logically, it is wrong factually, it is wrong morally. And yet I am a racist. I have to be more or less constantly on guard to make sure that I act according to my beliefs rather than my prejudices.
You probably understand what I just wrote. Most Whites in the US will not. Most just look at me as though I’m insane at least until I make the distinction between bigotry and bias. Bigotry is a belief; bias, an assumption. Beliefs are relatively easy to identify and express. Biases are not.
When I took the Implicit Associations Test after reading about it in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, I was shocked and saddened to see the results. It was no less perplexing to see the reactions of my White friends, who said things like, “yeah, but that’s not who you are; that’s not what you believe.” It’s true, but it only makes things worse. When we’re called racists, the most fair-minded of us will take an honest look and ask some hard questions, and still not see it. The closer we look, the harder it is to see.
That is also why I think Whites (including myself) resist the idea that there is “systemic” racism. Honestly, I don’t think there is anything about the system (depending on what system you’re talking about of course) that is racist — it’s the people within the system with implicit biases. Calling it “systemic” takes the responsibility away from the individuals in the system. The rules can be perfectly fair, but if there are human judgement calls to be made, that goes out the window.
That may be parsing things too finely because the end result is the same. But if we are to change the miserable condition that exists in this nation (forgive the paraphrase) we have to address the problems where they are.
That’s where things get terrifyingly problematic. On the Implicit Associations Test, not just Whites but also Blacks show pro-white bias (to a lesser extent.) I do not mean to imply, as I have heard overt racists say, that “Blacks are racists too” as though that somehow makes everything OK. To the contrary; it illustrates how deep this problem runs through our culture.
Which is the problem I have with the words “system” and “systemic.” They give the impression that if we only change the government and the police and the schools, everything will be all right. They make racism something external, some invisible enemy that must be rooted out like a conspiracy. Of course there are things which must change within the government and the police and the schools and so on, but what really needs to change is within ourselves. Racism is less systemic than endemic.
How do we fix this? I don’t think it can be fixed without raising understanding that the problem is not Whites’ beliefs, but assumptions at odds with our conscious beliefs. That goes two ways: understanding this, I have to keep an eye as best as I can that my actions are in line with my conscious beliefs. But also, as I communicate with others, I have to try speak in terms that help people to see where to look rather than just blame them for not seeing — especially for not seeing what I couldn’t see for a long time.
I mentioned earlier the Implicit Associations Test. A few months ago there was an article in the Atlantic about Implicit Associations in which Theodore Johnson described having the same experience I had with the test. He wrote, “My own hidden biases punched me in the gut”.
Toward the end of your article you asked “Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them?” Well, I hope so. And I also see it differently: I ask whether I am compassionate enough to help them live up to their own values. The courage required is theirs; they are the ones I’m asking to take a gutpunch.
Thank you again for your article. I apologize for not taking the time to edit my response for brevity.