“People act like racism is always something you choose to do, instead of a system that has indoctrinated you with unconscious behaviours.” – Chelsea Vowel (âpihtawikosisân)
I recently read a novel in which the author had a character say things like “It wasn’t darkest Africa!” and also used the term “white slavery.” A few weeks later, I noticed this author on social media doing some support work for diversity in publishing. Incongruous? Yes. Unusual? No.
Musician Florence Welch has a song I like. “No light, no light.” Around five years ago, I wanted to share it, and the easiest way was via the video, which I finally watched. Instantly horrified at the wash of racism coming across my computer screen, I paused, thinking, “How did this get all the way from idea, through production, and to release with no one saying anything?”
Then I did a little research. Had Florence and the Machine apologized for the video? Not that I ever saw. All I found were a bunch of comments by fans saying “Florence isn’t a racist!” What I think the fans meant by that was “Florence isn’t a bad person!”
Because, you see, to be “a racist” is to be a bad thing.
Someone works for a mission, or an NGO, or does “voluntourism.” They have the best intentions. They want to do good in the world. They might actually do some things that are good. But in the midst of all that do-gooding, they set themselves apart from the very people for whom they claim to have compassion. They are treating them as lesser. As though the person visiting is Lady Bountiful come to save the poor natives. Denaerys Targaryen come to free the slaves.And as though they know what’s best for people whose culture they barely know.
The systems themselves are racist, and influence everyone within them.
There is rarely the person or group who asks the locals what they want and need and what skills they have in their communities. The missionary, or NGO, or volunteer/tourist group often tromps right in and makes changes that can decimate the local economy. Even with the best intentions.
And then these (most often white) people leave, with lovely photos of themselves surrounded by the dark skinned people whom they so kindly helped.
Are these individuals “a racist”?
Ah. You see, there is the problem. There are people who will tell you – if they trust you, or just don’t care what you think – that they hate Mexicans, or Arabs, or people of African descent. But most people aren’t like that. Most people will say that they either actively like, or at least, have no issue with non-white people. “I’m not a racist!” they declaim. “I have Black friends!”
Just like the author I mentioned, or like Florence and the Machine or the voluntourist or NGO worker would, I imagine.
Part of the trouble we have is that phrase, “a racist.” Almost no white person thinks they are. Including me, despite my many racist fuck ups over the years.
Just as almost no one thinks they are “a sexist,” or “transphobic,” or any number of words meant to convey the ways in which humans belittle, or degrade, or insult, or ignore, or Other human beings who may be different than they are.
Yet we do this. All the time. We fail to see the lived experiences of others, fail to listen to their words. We just assume the template of our lives is the template everyone should live by.
We think we know what’s best.
(And as an aside to this conversation: No one ever thinks they’re "a rapist", either. Just ask most people who rape.)
The trouble is, that when we think of “a racist,” we think of a Klan member, or a white man with a Swastika tattooed on his forehead. And being “a racist” is a defining thing. It colors how we think of the whole of the person.
There are many reasons why I am not quick to call anyone “a racist” and mostly it that it is a totalizing move. A noun, rather than a verb.
Do I think most of us are riddled with prejudices, biases, and bad cultural training? Yes. Do I think most people actively hate and fear and attack people who are not like them? Those people exist, for sure, but I don’t think most of us are that way.
Most of us are not that extreme. We are people who engage in systems of racism, and our thoughts and behaviors are tinged with it. There is no way they can’t be. We have racist attitudes. We have internalized bigotry, and cultivated tastes and fears, all of which end up affected by what folks rightly call white supremacy.
White people act in ways that are racist and oppressive, often without even thinking of it.
White supremacy is, once again, not just the white hooded, cross burning person we used to call a White Supremacist, a person who believes white people are rulers and other, more dark skinned people are subhuman.
White supremacy stems from this: all the systems we live in are set up to preference whiteness, and to make it the standard.
White people are in more movies and books, as multi-faceted, living, breathing characters. When Black or brown characters show up in books and movies, they are often based on tropes (Similar things can be said for disabled people, or LGBTQ people, or often even heterosexual, cisgender white women).
Whiteness is the measure of beauty, of intellectual prowess, of success. Magazines tell us that light skin and thin noses are more beautiful. Silicon Valley tells us that white men’s ideas are just naturally better. So do universities. So does the publishing industry. How many publishers have Black editors on staff? Almost none. I could go on and on with examples, if we had time.
I’ve written many essays about systemic racism, police brutality, and the impact of white supremacy. Many other people have written even better things. It’s hard to not just repeat myself, because these basic concepts are the backbone for any conversation we have on race. But I want to point to something slightly different, and hope you’ll take the time to do some research on your own.
I want to go back to what Metis writer Chelsea Vowel is speaking of: unconscious behaviors.
These unconscious behaviors often reflect unexamined biases. For example, “to be a man or a woman means this, and therefore anything else is strange” (despite gender being socially constructed and changing from culture to culture).
White people are fond of saying they “don’t see color, they just see human beings,” or of asking us to “not bring race into it.” What these people fail to realize is that those very ideas are a luxury. White people don’t have to see race because the whole of our culture revolves around whiteness.
Whiteness is the blank canvas, the backdrop. It is the ocean in which drops of water congregate. Blackness and brownness stand out only when they insist that they be noticed in the midst of the sea of whiteness. Or they stand out when they are seen as a threat to this status quo. They are the nails that must be hammered down into the boards of the pier that juts out into the ocean. Or they must be taught a stronger lesson, by being drowned.
To stand out as a Black or brown person in the US is all too often to lose a job, or a child, or a home. To stand out, wanted or not, is all to often to risk death.
Yes, occasionally a Black (or Latinx or Asian or Native) artist or athlete or even author or scientist is allowed to stand out. But that is because they are considered exceptional. White people will often say that these exceptions “transcend race” – because how could something deeply rooted in Black consciousness and culture succeed?
Some white people comprehend this in at least some small way, if they are queer, or disabled, or desperately poor. But as my Black and brown comrades point out, they can never change the color of their skin. There is no way they can hide. So every day means waking up to navigate an unsafe world.
As my friend Crystal Blanton says: "Feeling safe in the world is a privilege. When we navigate our daily lives we should always remember that safety of the mind, the body, the spirit.... It's all relative. Assuming different is oppressive."
We are complicit in upholding the systems of racism that put so many people in direct danger.
Until we start actively noticing and dismantling white supremacy in all its guises, we are engaging in racist behaviors. Not being actively mean to Black people isn’t enough.
Every person can find ways to start dismantling white supremacy. There are more extreme things that we need to be doing in the long run to shift the structure of our society, but for those who have yet to begin, I encourage us to start with one or two of the following, or come up with some of our own:
Dismantling white supremacy starts with noticing our thoughts and assumptions.
It starts: With noticing how white people are portrayed on bus shelter ads, in magazines, in movies and books. And then noticing the way Black or brown people are presented, or are absent. With reading outside our usual boxes. With challenging co-workers on their language, or our bosses on their hiring practices. With questioning the narrative that a Black person “must have done something wrong” when they are killed by the police. With calling out news outlets about biased reporting. With telling the mayor of our town that we disagree with the way policing is done and pledging to do something about it. With listening to the experiences of Black and brown and Native people, and believing what they tell us. With requesting books by Black authors at the library, including in the children’s section.
You get the idea.
If white supremacy is all around us, challenging it can be done anywhere, and at any time.
So I would ask all white people this:
Instead of worrying about whether or not we are “a racist,” let's undermine white supremacy, every chance we get.
Copyright T. Thorn Coyle, August 2016
A few pieces on race and white supremacy:
Resources for education:
Food for Thought:
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