We can measure the strength of a person by their capacity for reflection. We are imperfect beings in a highly imperfect world, and if there is a universal truth that unites us, it’s that the majority of us are just trying to find our way through life and be better. The divisions between us emerge from our conflicting conceptions of “better”; what might be better for one of us can sometimes be just the opposite for someone else.
For some, that’s just the way the world is. It is dog-eat-dog, zero sum, and my success is an unavoidable function of your demise. This is a perspective that has long provided the rationale for maintaining power at others expense and the dehumanization of whoever stands in the way of one’s success — a mindset that believes the betterment of an individual or group is dependent upon and therefore justifies the degeneration of those outside that group. To a large degree, the once-conscious implementation of these practices has evolved into a self-sustaining system of inequity that no longer resides in the consciousness of the average middle-aged Caucasian like me. What is that you say?
That’s a bunch of bullshit. You’re just another one of those ‘woke’ liberals pushing the hoax of systemic racism. I am not a racist!
And with that now all too common reaction, we bear witness to the incapacity to reflect.
As it relates to racism, we are long past the time for something as seemingly passive as reflection. Action is long overdue, but successful action requires a clear-eyed assessment of the barriers to success. The dismantling of systemic racism, for those of us who believe it exists, is impeded by those who believe it doesn’t, and in that context, reflection is a necessary act of humility that qualifies as meaningful action — a first step from which a much larger share of us can willingly move in the same direction and deliver more meaningful systemic change.
As a capacity building exercise, let’s start with a reflection on the recent demonization of the word, woke. Someone less familiar with the current connotations might ask, what could possibly be wrong with the idea of being woke? If one isn’t awake, doesn’t that mean they are asleep, or more accurately in this context, unconscious?
Woke, as it is being deployed by the weakest among us, is just the latest in a set of words and phrases intended to deliver an instant dopamine rush of imagery and affirmation, giving permission to an unreflective white blob of bad faith to weaponize “wokeness” as a means of belittling all those individuals and organizations who have the courage to call out the irrefutable injustices of our time. But this use of woke is just one in a long line of weaponized words intended to circumvent thought and maximize polarity. The same can be said for mainstream media, Black Lives Matter, antifa, and even liberal. What is wrong with media that serves the “mainstream”? Of Black lives mattering? Of opposing fascism, or of having a liberal perspective on the role of government? There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but when enemies are needed and grievance must be stoked, ascribing evil and demonizing terminology take precedence over reflection.
As for woke, it has now been politically reformulated so that any good faith effort to facilitate thoughtful reflection on social inequities can now be conflated with the most extreme examples of hyper-sensitivity. This is a useful distraction for the proprietors of power and an indication of their inability to reflect on the slightest possibility that they might have something to do with the perpetuation of racial inequities, that is, if such inequities exist at all.
At this level of tribal conflict, we can forget about reflection. What the white blob seems to need, ironically, is a trigger warning at the mention of anything that could potentially hold them the slightest bit accountable for something like racism. Better to deny its existence than to reflect on its presence.
“Blob” is an intentionally dehumanizing term for behavior that resists humanity, so let us raise the bar a bit and make a distinction between the humanity and the atrocity.
I have previously attempted to separate what I termed the “genetic racist” from the “systemic racist”, but upon further reflection, I think it’s time to call into question the term racist and distinguish it from racist behavior. This is a concession to the volatility of the label and the counter-productiveness of calling someone a racist. It is not to say that racists don’t exist nor to diminish the damage of racism, but instead to recognize how it has become weaponized by those accused of it, in this case, by claiming victimhood and sparking outrage. Separating the human behavior from the human being is a path toward de-escalation — one that can convert destructive debate into constructive dialogue as it conveniently filters out those who are only engaged for reasons of bad faith.
Racist assigns an entire identity to an individual based on a subset of their behavior. In doing so, it leaves little to no room for common ground, and as we’ve seen from many who have been cancelled, no path to rehabilitation. “Racist behavior”, in contrast, is curable, or at least manageable, but it is characterized by a wide spectrum of severity that is both conscious and unconscious in its perpetrators. On one end of the spectrum lies your classic and explicit racist behavior that is driven by supporting racist beliefs. On the other end are those of us who, upon reflection, might recoil at any association of our behaviors with racism, but as participants in an inequitable system, we recognize our complicit roles.
Still bullshit — a bunch of woke-y joke-y gobbledygook, says my white male peer.
As a white male myself, allow me to reflect upon the power I command and the advantages I’ve had to achieve it. How much I’ve achieved on my own is questionable considering how much opportunity was already mine by default. This is not self-flagellation — it’s just reality. I grew up and live within a system that worked really well for me. By virtue of reflection, I don’t share the knee-jerk reactions of the most privileged among us — modeled so well by the performances of people like Senators Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham and Josh Hawley — which reveal how accustomed they are to seeing their perspectives as inherently preeminent and beyond debate.
For the fragile among us who claim to be under siege by all this wokeness — a contingent that includes those of good faith and bad; of those who sincerely believe they are victims and those who are just engaged in performance outrage in response to what the rest of us consider progress — if there is one salient point that you should reflect upon, it is this: It’s not about you.
This should come as a relief to anyone who thinks the progressive agenda is all about identifying racists and ceremonially banishing them to cancel-land. At ease, white men. To authentically address the consequences of racism, it is far more constructive to first disarm the “you-are-a-racist” grenade and enlist all those who are prepared to embrace an unavoidable truth: We are all in this together.
This turns out to be the biggest leap of faith for those of us with the most power — the people who it has always been about. As a byproduct of our privilege, we are most likely to be oblivious to the reality of our cultural advantages, with everything that doesn’t align with those defaults being perceived as jarring exceptions. This should not be a provocative assertion — it’s really just common sense. To my white friends who are still not there (dare I say “woke”), you need only look at the many decades of empirical evidence of inequality as the legacy of our multi-generational advantages.
Our system is inequitable — it grants opportunity unevenly and independent of merit. Rather than white-mansplaining why that is, rather than claiming victimhood at a nefarious plot to cancel you, rather than pulling the spotlight back upon yourself (as it usually is) and proclaiming, as you often do, that you’ve earned every penny and promotion throughout your entire life and nobody is going to take that away from you, how about we just shut up and do something so many of us find counter to our nature: reflect.
Let’s reflect upon the reality that, from the point of view of so many people of color who’s perspective has never been granted as much credibility as ours has, this is not about us being “racists” (it’s not about us!). It’s instead about the system within which we live, with others, that perpetuates racism.
Of course, confronting racism and attempting to articulate an approach is itself like trying to diffuse a bomb. Are you triggered yet, my white friends? For those who are, I could use one of your favorite weaponized words and belittle you for being a snowflake, but we are in this together. Is it at least some consolation that I’m going to stop calling you a racist?
It’s not about us. But that doesn’t mean we are now free of responsibility, especially considering we still wield so much disproportionate power, whether we believe it or not. What’s most important on the road to a solution is our capacity for good faith and our collective strength to truly acknowledge and consider perspectives well outside our large and relatively cushy comfort zone — something many of us have never had to do. The instinctual reaction is denial. The uncomfortable one is reflection.
There will always be racism because there will always be weakness. Neither will ever be completely purged from our system, but it can be marginalized for the betterment of all of us. We can start by heeding Lincoln’s call to the better angels of our nature, we can choose strength over weakness, and we can engage in the simple act of reflection.
But this is just a start.