Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist

Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist April 30, 2015

I cringe when an article begins “Dear White People…” It lacks nuance, among other things. So I am resisting my urge to start there, even though it’s exactly how this note goes, in my head. How about this:

To all y’all who, like me, are not people of color, and/or, all who identify as ‘Caucasian’ when we check the little box on a survey or job application:   

From the 12th Street Riot, Detroit, 1967.  #notalwaysthisovert
From the 12th Street Riot, Detroit, 1967.
#notalwaysthisovert

We have no idea. And maybe we should stop talking.  

From a distance, the rioting in Baltimore looks like senseless, barbaric destruction. But we do not know what it’s like to watch helplessly as, again and again, people in authority prove that they can kill you for the slightest infraction, without consequence. We don’t know what it’s like to move through a system that, from the moment you are born, counts you as less than a whole person. We don’t know what it’s like to be blamed for our own poverty, our own lack of opportunity, or the sins of others who happen to share our skin color. We don’t know. We should stop talking.

Here is my confession for today: I am racist. Not like the guys who wave around confederate flags and shout racial slurs and incite lynch mobs. It’s easy to see those people on t.v. and assume, if we are not that, we are some highly evolved species. Unlike Bubba in that movie there, WE are forward thinking, compassionate people. We are immune to making judgments or harboring negative associations– or feeling slightly apart-from and other-than– when faced with media images of large black mobs, or black mugshots, or strangers on the street who don’t look like us. We are PROGRESSIVE, dammit. All people are the same and God loves us all equally!

Well. God does love us all equally. But we are not all the same. Some of us have privilege that blinds us in really damning ways. Which means, if we have never lived a moment of real, embodied, systemic oppression, we don’t get to be the boss of how people ‘behave’ when they are angry. We don’t get to write the morality code for ‘them, over there.’

Truth is, being born white—into a culture that gives extra points for that, from the moment of birth—means that I am racist. And probably you are too.

I grew up in southeastern Kentucky. There were, I think, 4 black kids in my high school. (I know that I am prone to hyperbole, but I’m not exaggerating for effect here. I think there were 4. There were definitely fewer than 10). I never judged one of those (4) black people based on their skin color; I never cringed away from talking to them or sitting by them; I never thought they should not be a part of things I was part of.

But I also never thought it was weird that there were only 4. I never wondered, ‘why are we all so much the same here? And how must it feel to be different, in this sea of identical pale faces?’ Never in life did I have that conversation with myself, or another person. Nor was it a conversation that I heard take place in my proximity.

I then spent 4 years at Transylvania University; a school that, for all its progressive Liberal Arts inclinations, was also predominantly white. Where one fraternity celebrated ‘Old South Days,’ and filled a whole row of dorm room windows with confederate flags every fall. Another alumna of that school recently wrote this powerful, widely-read piece about racism on campus.

I was there. I saw it. But hey, PART OF THE CULTURE, right? Just celebrating history folks, nothing to see here. Even so, I spent my college years in that place feeling like I had escaped the dark belly of racism. I was in college, in the big city. There might have only been 20 black kids on campus, but hey, 20 was more than 4. I had friends of color now. BUT I DIDN’T SEE COLOR, because everybody is the same, and we are all color blind here.

Well. But not seeing color is a problem too. And everybody is not the same.

I was not so evolved then. I’m not so evolved now. And we do not live in the post-race reality that we’d like to think exists in educated, progressive circles. Which is why I don’t feel comfortable saying “Dear White People,” and then proceeding to tell all y’all how to do this right. Truth is, I don’t know. I spent my teenage years thinking that racism was a t.v. thing from the 60’s, and my 20’s thinking that racism was a small-town phenomenon from my childhood. Now I’m spending my 30’s learning that racism is woven into the fabric of who we are as a nation…and that I have been complicit in that system my whole life long. I’m not hateful. I do not actively engage in unjust treatment of individuals. I have friends of color. But what I’m learning is that those good intentions and vague parameters of inclusion don’t make me NOT a racist. They don’t make you not a racist, either.

The only thing that can make somebody not-a-racist is to ask hard questions about the places we come from, and the systems in which we take part; to sit with those friends of color (even if there are only 4 of them) and ask what it’s like for them; and meanwhile, ask ourselves why we still only have 4 black friends.

And for damn sure, we cannot sit on this side of our sheltered world, with our tragically-limited perspective, and say “them over there, those thugs… what is the world coming to?” Thug is the new N-word, people. It is intended to diminish, to silence, to justify violence against, and to set apart. It is for sure the new slur, and it is doing its job if you’ve let it color your perception of what’s happening in our cities. And as always, in our rural burgs as well.

America, on the whole, spent its teenage years not noticing that racism was a thing; and its young adult life thinking that racism was this toxic, backward small-town thing that we had SO left behind us.

It’s time we all grew up. In the meantime, we should stop talking, and listen.

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  • Mark Johnson

    “In the meantime, we should stop talking, and listen.” Unfortunately, I really haven’t heard anyone worth listening too.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      Then you are running in the wrong circles…

      • I guess where I disagree with you on some of your conclusions is that while hundreds of years of blatant racism have led systematic problems, I don’t see how that means all white people are born racist.

        However, we are all born IGNORANT.

        All of us are limited to our own knowledge and experiences. Therefore we interpret the world through that grid. And I don’t see how the solution to racial ignorance is to tell part of the group their ignorance makes them racist. Therefore they need to spend more time listening.

        You don’t battle ignoring with pride or silence one.
        You don’t battle ignorance by imposing a narrative on others actions.
        You don’t battle ignorance with assumptions.

        You battle ignorance with love, grace, compassion, and healthy discussion.

        • n2dep2care

          Unless you begin to own it- you will never be free of it. When was the last time you had a person of color in your home as an invited guest? When was the last time you went through a person of color to obtain anything you need for your living or life? When/if you can walk through your day without interacting with a person of color in an emotional or personal way, and think nothing is wrong with that, You have a racist problem. The whole system is stacked against us, in that we are disposable to you. You don’t NEED us to do any formidable thing in your life, where as we can’t walk out our door without having to go through the white community for all our needs, wants and wishes. Our homes, education, jobs, banking, loans, purchases- you predominately own/control it all. That is the way the system has been designed, and how much of that POWER are you willing to give up? Will you give Blacks the banking industry? Or, Hispanics the housing industry? No, you wouldn’t give it up to save your souls. So, yes. You are racist/privileged just by the fact you are white. Understand?

          • “When was the last time you had a person of color in your home as an invited guest? When was the last time you went through a person of color to obtain anything you need for your living or life? When/if you can walk through your day without interacting with a person of color in an emotional or personal way, and think nothing is wrong with that, You have a racist problem.”

            That’s a list of totally arbitrary standards. Using that as a check list for racism is blatantly foolish. Right now I would miserably fail that test.

            Two summers ago I could have given extremely good answers to those questions. I actively pursued hiring a former student that was black because he was exactly what I wanted for an intern. I then trusted him with a group of people I’m responsible for, and had him over to dinner at him house weekly. I can’t wait until he moves back to town so I can continue working with him.

            So two summers ago I was a champion of fighting my inner racism, and now I’m suddenly a poster child for inherent white privilege and racism?

            “That is the way the system has been designed, and how much of that POWER are you willing to give up? Will you give Blacks the banking industry? Or, Hispanics the housing industry? No, you wouldn’t give it up to save your souls”

            I don’t know what that means. Those aren’t things which can just be given up. And I have no idea what it would mean to do so.

            “You are racist/privileged just by the fact you are white. Understand?”

            No not at all. You just explained privilege. You didn’t explain to me why my skin color makes me a racist.

            However, I will fire back that you are making BLATANT racist statements by stating that all white people racist for being white. That is an overtly racist statement.

          • n2dep2care

            You can call me foolish, or racist (which I can not be, I don’t have the POWER) or any other little insinuations you wish to hurl, but you get a F- Sean, because you are NOT listening- too busy talking. Go over the lesson again, and get back to me. So, you had a FEW blacks over- good for you Sean, good for you. Some of my best friends are black.

          • I’m listening. I’m just very confused. I’m being called a racist for being born white. I fully own being ignorant.

            I am telling you, don’t just throw accusations at me. I am also asking you to EXPLAIN to me. You are right, I do not understand your perspective. I’m open to listening.

          • n2dep2care

            I’m not throwing them Sean, I’m hurling them because it’s the truth, whether you accept it or not. You may not be prejudiced or bigoted but you are, by the fact of your race, through no fault of your own, racists.

          • “You may not be prejudiced or bigoted but you are, by the fact of your race, through no fault of your own, racists.”

            (1) Do you not see this sentence as racist?

            (2) Please explain to me in greater detail why my race makes me a racist? I don’t get it.

            I’m operating the Webster definition of racism:

            racism
            : poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race
            : the belief that some races of people are better than others

          • Mark Johnson

            It basically boils down to whoever is in power and owns the money is the racist. If you’re Japanese in Japan, you’re the racist. White in America or Europe, racist. Chinese in China, racist. Black in Africa, racist.

          • Jon Fermin

            Dude, you sound racist. And for what it’s worth I say that as a hispanic.

      • Mark Johnson

        You too, Then by all means list some people that are worth listening too. Most of the talking heads That I have heard on both sides of the aisles on all networks are pretty useless. Then again i’ve stopped watching cable news altogether a few months now.

    • n2dep2care

      Then you just do NOT have the ability to hear Mark, farther than your own voice I would assume.

      • Mark Johnson

        Then by all means list some people that are worth listening too. Most of the talking heads That I have heard on both sides of the aisles on all networks are pretty useless. Then again i’ve stopped watching cable news altogether a few months now.

  • Rust Cohle

    //people in authority prove that they can kill you for the slightest infraction//

    Prisoner in van said Freddie Gray was ‘trying to injure himself,’ document says
    washingtonpost.com/local/crime/prisoner-in-van-said-freddie-gray-was-banging-against-the-walls-during-ride/2015/04/29/56d7da10-eec6-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html

    • Albert Magnus

      Even if that’s true, what about the scores of other black males that were not trying to harm themselves, just trying to survive or escape.

      • Rust Cohle

        So what do you think of people attempting to escape the law?

  • Juan Lopez

    Excellent, excellent blog. Thank you.

  • Blueribbon

    Interesting thoughts. Too bad it’s not as clear and simple as just having the brown, black and white skinned people kiss and make up. You see, there is a little thing called going out at night….There are places in Baltimore that have been off limits to white people for years as night. The first ones to warn you are the good and kind black people in the neighborhoods. Your term “thug” is not synonymous with black or any color, but let’s face it, when you are in certain places in Baltimore at night, you are not afraid of Mr. Rogers or the Chinese food delivery person. You are looking for dangerous types, and they can be any color, but more common than not they are black. Until we can find a way to be safe anywhere in the US of A at night- we are tossing our cookies into the wind.

    • n2dep2care

      And there are NO off limits places in Baltimore for people of color? You are fooling yourself bub! You have on your white colored glasses that place you in a much more “pure” place than everyone else. That attitude is exactly what is destroying us. You too are a THUG, you are just to blinded to see your own faults.

      • Blueribbon

        Unfortunately you don’t know what you are talking about. For one thing you assume I’m white, which I’m not. But put that aside for a moment while I ask you a question: Who are you to judge me anyhow? I see myself as a peacemaker in a world where there is not enough peace. Please don’t assume sir, that because you are a certain color that you are in the know of everything that happens to people of color. I’m sure you mean well, but I for one don’t need your criticism.

  • Jaime Andres Pretell

    Pure hogwash. She can speak for herself, but the experiences of those who call themselves White can be as diverse as those who call themselves something else. Any explanation that tries to speak for all is foolish. Furthermore, while ALL humans have some prejudices (it is part of the way we think), not all are racist.

  • Flagged.

    I certainly hope they delete this quickly.

  • Sonya Pleasant Spencer

    And listening, they are not. You have a racist ex-cop who uses skewed statistics created by a system that is intended to manipulate and create fear, and others who do not understand the basic definition of racism, all commenting. Racism is a system of privilege that allows members of a dominate culture access. People of color can never be racist because they do no have privilege or dominance.
    And Mr. Racist cop, I don’t care if you know that I live in Cedar Hill, Texas. Roll up outside my house and you will find out why Texas is an “open carry state.”

    • Uhhhhh Texas is not an open carry state. But if Greg Abbott gets his way, we will be soon.

  • trinielf

    The title should be everyone’s a little bit racially prejudiced. Racism is a whole other kettle of fish. Too many people do not know the difference.

    Racial prejudice: Pre-judging someone of a particular race to be a certain way and treating them in that manner even if it has nothing to do with who they really are. Having a preference for one race over the other.

    Racism: Believing YOUR race is superior (or another in inferior) to yours based any number of false assertions and supporting and participating in a system of apartheid that ensures the races deemed inferior do not have the same rights, opportunities or are treated with the same relevance, value and regard.

    A racist is by default racially prejudiced. So for example they pre-judge all or more black people to be violent or stupid and subhuman as it is part of their racial superiority ideology. But it goes far deeper. They will actually ENACT economic, social, academic, religious, political and legislative systems in place to reflect this feeling e.g. Jim Crow, housing discrimination, apartheid in South Africa, making interracial marriage illegal, the caste system in India etc.

    However not all racially prejudiced people are racists or would participate in racism. There are many black people who are racially prejudiced to white people. They pre-judge that all white people are have hidden bad intentions to exploit or ill-treat them in some way or that all white people are racist (think they are superior to other races). However the only sphere of influence they have in this situation to enact their feelings is between them and the individual in question. In addition, their feelings do not stem from feeling superior (as a race) to white people but out of mistrust, bad experiences etc.

    Another example. A Cherokee father, proud of his ethnic heritage may have a racial preference that his daughter also marry within their tribe (for any number of reasons) and if she goes outside and marries say a white man or black man, he will be none too pleased. But again, his racial prejudice is only expressed towards his own inner sphere and it is not necessarily because he thinks his ethnicity superior to all others.

    If however, the expression of racial prejudice goes into actual laws, systems, popular culture, then it becomes racism.

    • The title’s taken from a song in the Tony winning best musical Avenue Q. My second favorite to the song “Schadenfreude”.

  • Erin Smallwood Wathen

    THere is some good discussion going on here, folks (and some weird stuff too. WHich has hopefully all been taken down by now… ) I am not going to try and reply to every single comment but will say–I think there needs to be some clarification between white “guilt,” and white accountability. I am not suggesting that all white people are actively and intentionally holding people of color back, or acting hatefully towards them. But I do think we are often blissfully unaware of the privilege afforded to us by our skin color–and therefore, we take part in systems that perpetuate the divide. As long as those systems work for us and are comfortable for us, we fail to question or challenge them. Sorry if that was not clear in the post. And if you still disagree, then I don’t know how to say it better. Might be above my pay grade…

  • Malarkey

    Well written and spot on! Sharing all over the place.