I’m a white person in America. When a white person tries to explain racism, it unfortunately trends to explaining something in such a way that makes that thing seem derived from rational misunderstandings, with the calmness and rationality of the tone implying that such a thing merely exists but is inevitable. That is why the conversation is best to be heard from a black perspective, wherein the explanations can be couched in the hurt, grief, and real stakes that do not allow organic history to look like a justifiable reason for racism.
So in this post, I am not going to explain racism. Rather instead I want to process the word “racist” as an adjective, not a noun, that applies to me.
As a child, racism was never something that occurred to me. I wish I could say that it was because I grew up in a diverse place of equals, but far to the contrary. I was in a place where the only thing resembling ethnicity was what variety of Catholic European you were descended from: Polish, Irish, or Italian. And by descended, it really was descended, with no immigrants within living generations to my knowledge. This was upstate New York, in a community whose dragging economy and lake-effect snow was not going to attract newcomers. I myself am white American to the umpteenth degree, of northwestern European origins. The most recent and exotic immigrants were my great-grandparents, who were Nones, and while that old-world ethnic heritage is more present in my family than any other, we lived far away from those relatives and had no connection to it beyond a recipe for gnocchi and pizelles.
But like all stark white communities, there always comes about that one person of color. In my young life in upstate New York, I only had one interaction with a black person. It was a family that visited my church for about three weeks. They didn’t stay, but they had a daughter my age and we’d played together for those few weeks. She gave me a Snuggle teddy bear –yes, the bear on the detergent bottles, and in true merchandise form he smelled like the soap he advertised. When Mom asked me where I’d gotten the teddy bear and needed clarification on the name, I described her by her clearly distinctive attribute, “She’s the black one.” My mother was concerned at me defining the girl as black. I was asked to find other descriptions for her, to define her in other ways. As a kid, this seemed silly. I could describe other people by hair color, eye color, or the dress they were wearing, so why not their skin?
Thus began what was in my memory the only explicit teaching moment of what was otherwise an implicit worldview built into my childhood. Racism was defining a person by the color of their skin. Racism was unjust and malicious. The answer to racism was to not judge people by their color, and that if you didn’t allow yourself to see another person’s color, then you would only be able to see a person of equal qualities to yourself. This worldview seemed to have some sense in it. California wines only were able to upset European prestige upon passing blind taste tests, so by parallel logic it seemed possible that overlooking color, with the false associations our culture had connected to it, would allow you to see an equal person. This definition and response to racism was reductionist and inadequate, but I didn’t have to confront this in upstate New York. When you live in a white community, racism is something that happens “over there.”
Furthermore, I had no reason by the terms of racism presented to me to think that I or my family were racist. My father’s job put him through a lot of international travel, and he always spoke in glowing terms of the cultures and people he met. My mother was a Peace Corp veteran in Botswana, and our house was decorated with books and memorabilia of the things she’d seen and admired there, moreover my mom had a deep admiration for the natural black hairstyles she’d seen there. We involved ourselves in organizations that hosted international students over the holidays, so that I met and knew a number of far east and south Asians. Though I didn’t know that hispanics weren’t considered white, we enjoyed good rapport and Christmas tamales with a woman at our church who was to me exciting as “an actual Mexican!” So all my knowledge of diversity was shaped not by experience with race, but with internationals. They were all highly positive interactions, in a way that distinctly shaped my prejudices. I grew to be rather contemptuous of Americans –whose complacency, gluttony, and political pitfalls were all exposed to my observation– and preferred the romantic and novel cultures of people from far places that I could not see too clearly. But because my affinity for these people was primarily sourced in their otherness from me, something that included their racial traits, I also thought this meant that I was more open to racial differences too.
And so right up until my teenage years, I thought I wasn’t racist because I did not allow myself to see people’s skin color, and because I had developed a preference for people who were different from myself. It was terribly well intentioned, but terribly inadequate. As would be proven when, in the spirit of the American dream, my family followed opportunity and uprooted to…
The greater Memphis area generates racism. The poverty in that city is so great, and the daily crime rate and scale of violence so horrifying, that the news was a solid stream of local violence –almost entirely news on the actions and conditions of black residents. I remember the mayor at the time, Mayor Herenton, having all the eloquence and subtly of Donald Trump, and always getting a bad taste in my mouth when he’d appear onscreen. Herenton is a black man. The streets were inundated with the second-hand buzzing of rap or hip-hop, which when consumed indirectly through someone else’s stereo only communicates an irreverence for other people’s spaces and the rhythmic punctuation of cuss words. The communities and schools were largely defined in economic groups, which were nearly synonymous with racial groups, and so it was surprisingly hard to meet black people organically. The language of the black people was rendered almost unintelligible to us by their vernacular English. To analyze the racial divide of Memphis or the racism it fosters is beyond the scale of this post, nor do I and as white person care to do so, as I said in my introduction. Rather instead, what I need to process is how my inexperienced, simplistic, well-intentioned viewpoint was utterly inadequate to confront the racism that is so entrenched in the American South.
The problem with the old “colorblind” theory was that you can’t literally stop seeing a person’s color, you can’t stop the inevitable correlation between a persons blackness –something defined by more than just skin– and the violence, poverty, and indicators of illiteracy. But because you aren’t supposed to see it, you don’t acknowledge that such a thing is happening, and furthermore you don’t examine it to understand why there is a correlation. Examination requires explicit seeing. And since you weren’t allowed to see skin color, you had to start defining the differences you couldn’t help but see in cultural terms. “Racism” was judging people by their skin, so my simplistic definition went, so judging between people by culture wasn’t racism. And since the culture that correlated with black skin in Memphis was largely one defined by the quintessence of poverty, violence, and uneducation, that led to judgments upon their values and priorities as a community, which justified the assumption that such was their own fault.
The problem with my openness to otherness in people was that this was primarily derived in them being international in context. I could romanticize their culture and enjoy its best qualities through the filtration of encyclopedias, television documentaries, and representatives from educated tiers of their society. But black Americans are Americans, a population I do tend to be biased against through my close experience. Their experiences were being filtered to me through the criminal justice system and the news flashes. Their culture was largely represented to me through the bleed-through of music from someone else’s car and problematic content of rap. And so I was racist. Not a racist, but certainly racist. I was a very kind, well-intentioned, racist person. I was not actively unhelpful to the conversation, but passively so in that my contribution to conversations in the white community did not challenge or investigate the status quo, and furthermore it supported a seemingly legitimate space in which much more hostile and active racism could still be exerted.
I had this going both against me: I didn’t want to be racist. The easiest way to not be racist is to define it in ways that did not reflect any blame upon myself. It meant not acknowledging the racism in things from which I benefited. It meant engaging in a legalism that splits and splices news to exclude racism from the conversation. And in the context of the American South, it also meant revising history in order to minimize racism from the record and distract away from it, because no one wants to be descended from racists, much in the same way no one wants to be descended from Nazis. There’s much more to be said regarding how much the South doesn’t want to be racist but doesn’t want to actually change, but here’s where I must again draw the line and declare it out of the scope of this post. As regards me, let it be acknowledged that I also engaged in this selective view of history that looked for the good in the Confederacy while minimizing the relevance of the bad.
But I had this going for me: I wanted to be anti-racist. In my oversights and simplistic view of racism, I was pretty ineffective and unprepared for the work of anti-racism, but I wasn’t content to let the status quo be, at any rate. I was a homeschooler, entirely because the Mississippi school system had less to offer me than homeschooling. Alas, that meant that I didn’t have some of the opportunities that existed in the public schools for integrating my social circles. But I was in 4-H and active at the state level events. It baffled and distressed me at these events how self-segregated blacks and whites were from each other. If there were buses, it inevitably self-sorted where one bus was almost entirely one race and the other was almost entirely the other. If there were tables, it inevitably self-sorted to the blacks sitting all at one table and the whites at the other. I was already at a social disadvantage as a homeschooler, having a particular subculture that kept me disconnected from most crowds already. It was only at the white table that I could find other homeschoolers to relate to, and so I sat there, though still uncomfortable with the segregation. My discomfort with our complacent segregation peaked every so often, and I would try and bridge the gap. Yet though I wanted to try, the black table felt impenetrable to me. I do remember a particular disaster in which I sat next to a black girl on the bus and tried engaging her in conversation about the music she was listening to. It resulted in the usual meltdown of conversation I had amongst public schoolers: she was shocked that I’d not heard of her current pop artist (my repertoire was entirely classical and 60’s-70’s), and then spent the rest of the bus ride listing and shaming me for all the other artists critical to her enjoyment that I didn’t know of and calling me out to her friends. Teenagers make lousy liaisons.
Wanting to be anti-racist also helped me see the indicators of chronic racism, even though I didn’t know why it was still ongoing. Once, a church of Christ bus broke down outside my very own church of Christ building. My mom and I went out to help –and discovered it was a black congregation from the town over. The shock was not that it was a black church of Christ, but that we’d never heard of them. You’ve got to understand, churches of Christ are usually pretty networked and aware of neighboring churches. Our church really tried to be welcoming to black families, had offered lots of service and aid to black families during Hurricane Katrina, and preached human equality in God’s sight. Yet somehow, in seven years of attendance, my mother and I had never heard mention of this black congregation nor seen any collaboration with them.
Anyhow, I wasn’t ready to accept this implicit segregation. I tried and kept open to trying to find connections with black people. I tried the methods that I thought would work –being kind and curious. And though my ignorance and reductionism rendered me ineffective, I still had the potential to learn.
As with many people, it took college to get the exposure to other ideas that I needed. My first year of college was a bit of social bankruptcy. Again, as a homeschooler I did not have the pop culture and stock highschool experiences to bank upon in bonding with friends. I spent most of my first year being condescended to, held in spectacle, and being pretty lonely. But in my second year, a bridge was built. First in the form of making a mixed-race friend who specifically liked me for being such a Victorian milk toast, and from that friend came other friends, moreover there came roommates. And in living with women of color, I finally got some insight in the beauty of black culture and the racism that non-whites faced. Though this wasn’t a full education on their perspective, and I still have a fear they probably eye-rolled at me on various occasions, it certainly did help teach me the divide between what whites in my community wanted the Confederacy to be, and the meaning of those symbols to the black community. It showed me the real anxiety that traffic police instilled in these innocent and harmless black women. And moreover, it showed me the real malice towards black people that took shelter within the revisionism of well-meaning whites who just didn’t want to feel bad. Once we had a lovely day trip to Oxford planned, but so did the KKK and the Confederate flags and fanboys that went with them, so we stayed home.
My insight into white privilege panned out when I left my community college for university. (I was out of the South and into the Mormon West.) My greatest anxiety in college was a fear of debt. I was a hard-searching applicant for scholarships, and in my ignorance and refusal to see my racial privilege I was quite frustrated at the great volume of scholarships made available to only blacks. My parents had made perfectly clear that I was responsible for my own college education, and that they expected me to work for my worth. There was always the military, or else you needed scholarships to supplement the drudge pay of unskilled labor. The ability of college debt to crush my future was all too real to me, and to be excluded from relief and forced into debt on the basis of my color was a frustrating thing. It felt unfair, that all these organizations and institutions assumed I did not need money because white parents could be counted upon to the foot bill for their children’s education…… and then it proved true. Despite all their talk, my parents wanted me to get the fullest out of my education, and a music education is an intense degree that leaves little time for work, so they paid me a stipend. I squirreled that stipend and lived off lint, and combined with the musical scholarships that I did qualify for, I graduated college debt-free. As it turned out, those organizations were right to not let me into their pools of applicants. I was indeed privileged, and I knew my past black roommates could not count on that same kind of financial safety net. That I had an advantage in society not solely derived from my own sweat was exposed to me. I no longer believed that success in the world was derived from pulling up your own bootstraps.
Then came the education part of my degree. I was a music ed major, and while that lacks a lot of the components more connected to running a school system that other educators must learn and face, I still had one general-purpose class on the machinations of the system. My first ed professor was very concerned with the conflict between quality and inequality in the schools, about zoning and tax laws and their effect upon school funding, about the history of school segregation, white flights, and the constant pull of parents wanting the best resources for me-and-mine continually erodes the capability of schools to answer the challenge of providing equal opportunity to all children. And in that class alone was a ton of education to explain the conditions I’d seen in the South and the existence of my hastily developed town built across the Mississippi border from the annexing reach of Memphis. So it was that I learned the inadequacy of my own community’s views of schools and school funding to fight the effects of racism, and indeed their selfishly good intentions that would only make the inequality ever worse.
The other part of my education involved getting a criminal justice major for a roommate and lifelong friend. My previous thoughts about criminal justice systems were much in the vein of an elementary student about their teacher and the rules they set. You assume that person of authority knows what they’re doing, because they’re a person of authority, but as I was training to be a teacher myself it became clear just how much teachers make rules as they go. Having CJ majors for friends and roommates revealed to me the same imperfection in their authority as well. I learned a lot through my roommate’s disillusionment and experiences in the criminal justice system. She taught me much about things that were set up in self-fulfilling cycles of punishment, poverty, and crime, and how racism finds its expression under the powers and pressures of our law enforcement, even when there were the best of intentions. I learned about the malfunction of bail bond laws, the inadequacy of training (even at the college level!) to handle emotional or mental situations, the difficulty in even defining the word “crime” in a consistent and enforcable sense, and the lack of monitoring that allowed both officers and judges to define their own justice without manifested accountability. I saw through a police chaplain friend the abuses we put our police officers through and how we are not putting our best nor best treated human beings into the most difficult of situations. I had friends go to prison and had to confront what a living Hell, a condition equal to or worse than even our historical slavery, we have made our penitentiary system into. I had to see that I let this authority and abuse go unquestioned because it was not something I ever expected to deal with personally.
Here and Now
I am writing this because in the rallying cry to defeat racism there also rises a rallying pressure to express sanctimony. White people come out to express support. White people come out to guilt white people. White people come out to signal to black people “I’m on your side” but neglect to name and itemize their own guilt. The sanctimony of white people, even if based in a truer innocence, does not awaken the best in the souls of other white people. Humans are competitive beings, after all, and the competition to be “most innocent” is not constructive when that the short cut method for many is legalism, redaction, and denial. Striving for innocence, when innocence is a condition impossible for humans and impossible in our society, only makes hypocrites of us all.
I am a Christian, and I believe in the power of confession. It is through confession that we find solidarity, facilitate honesty, learn what harm we do to the world, find forgiveness, and start seeing solutions. So here’s a representation of my guilt:
- I have laughed and lauded the Mississippi mantra “Keep the flag, change the governor.” (Mississippi has the confederate battle flag inset in its corner)
- I have argued in white conversations that the Civil War was not about slavery, but economics.
- I have handed unquestioning power to the police force, including a lack of concern for their heightened dependence on violence in both preventing and punishing crime.
- I have felt entitled to benefits that the black community needed, regardless of my own privileges.
- I have legalized and cornered “racism” into a definition narrow enough to not apply to me, my family, or my friends.
- I have explained racism in a sterile way that did not demand action, but only made the system seem inevitable.
- I have avoided the uncomfortable conversations that would’ve helped me understand the realities blacks live.
For these things, I am truly sorry. And in apology, I resolve to:
- Challenge those symbols which have been idealized and sterilized in white communities, despite them still representing racist history and ideals in the eyes of black people and white supremacists
- Always teach that the states of the Confederacy seceded from the union, as explained most explicitly by Texas’s article of succession, to fight of the abolitionists in the north attacking their “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.”
- Hold in question the unmonitored power we give our authorities, and demand the dismantling of the militant, vindictive justice system that we have created in favor of more pacifist, redemptive programs that align with my Christian values and do not damage our citizens and neighbors.
- Sponsor and support the existence of organizations and scholarships specifically for the benefit of the black community, to help bridge the gap created by their chronic poverty stemming from the racism that finds power in our systems.
- Define racism more broadly in accordance with how it manifests, facilitate confession of it, so that we can more honestly identify and address its occurrence and clean it from our culture.
- Leave explanations of racism to those who are affected by it, so that their needs and passion make it an issue requiring action, and to become familiar and versed in those who explain it best.
- Listen to conversations that make me feel uncomfortable, and participate in their grief even though grief is uncomfortable.