Well-intentioned white people don’t want to acknowledge our own racism because it doesn’t fit the image we’ve built of ourselves.
Asking the question, “What does racism look like in 21st century United States?” seems straightforward but I’m betting most white people’s answers are frustratingly incomplete.
I know mine are, even in the wake of the murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner and the explosion of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s not that I don’t understand what the word racism means, of course, or that it clearly covers overtly racist acts like calling someone the n-word or KKK rallies that spew white supremacy messages.
I doubt there are many people living in the United States today who don’t have a definition for the word racism in their heads and a vision for what “it” looks like. In her Jezebel piece last December, “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People,” Brit Bennett explored her frustration with a vision she was sold as a black girl growing up in a world where there were lots of “good, white people” in her sphere and how much she wanted to believe that racism was always neatly packaged:
…we expect racism to appear, cartoonishly evil like a Disney villain. As if a racist cop is one who wakes in the morning, twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands together as he plots how to destroy black lives.
Many white people expect that. And it’s patently ridiculous. But why do so many “well-intentioned” white people believe whole-heartedly in this cartoonish vision of a racist person? Well-intentioned white people don’t want to acknowledge our own racism because it doesn’t fit the image we’ve built of ourselves. We often don’t and won’t talk about the racism in our small, daily acts; what it does and how it feels for black people.
No matter how “good” those of us who know we’re on the right side of history believe we behave, we still commit racist acts all the time. Well-intentioned “good” white people like me —white people who have always told themselves “I’m not racist, I’m progressive/loving/open-hearted”—need to acknowledge, understand, confront, and change our everyday racist thoughts and actions.
I’ve talked to a lot of white people over the last couple of months about what really needs to happen as a result of the protests, anger, marches, riots, and organizing. We breathlessly huff to each other: there needs to be action take, legislation passed, organizations supported, and policed shifted in order for change to occur. (All true enough). I’m grateful for the young people, women, men, children, and families who take to the streets with me, chanting and lifting high their signs of love and protest. I’m appreciative of the discussion: Which legislators are listening? Which petitions do we sign? Which organizations are doing the work we can support with our dollars and more?
But that’s the easy route for a lot of white people. It’s not hard to carve out a couple of hours on a Saturday to march arm-in-arm with people who agree that we’re all doing a noble and wonderful thing by using our voices against oppression and racism. It’s not challenging to send in a few dollars to the organizations you support, and post on Facebook that you’re outraged. I’m not saying it’s not important or helpful or admirable to do these things. But it’s easy.
What’s harder and ultimately more productive is to examine how my own racist acts, no matter how “small,” ensure that black people continue to live in a society that makes life wholly more challenging, difficult, and— yes—dangerous for them. In effect, that there is a direct line that runs between my own everyday racism and the violence perpetrated on the young men, women, and children over the last several months who have been murdered in cold blood by law enforcement.
How do I notice my racism and what do I do with it? I consider my initial feelings of anxiety about that young, black male walking by my car as I slide my finger to the automatic locks on my drivers side door; and acknowledge that action as racist instead of automatically forgiving myself or excusing it away (“but I’m not that racist person”). What’s embarrassing (and shocking) for me is to notice that, when getting my oil changed at a Jiffy Lube recently, and told to see the manager “out front” with my question, I headed toward the white man first, rather than the black male who was standing just feet from him (and who was actually the manager). I’m not excusing this but stating a fact: It’s not easy for white people to come to terms with the facts of our everyday racism.
My husband told me last week that, while in a big-box store, he picked up a package of plain white t-shirts. On the cover of the package was a black male modeling the t-shirts. His first thought? Oh, these are for black men. I know—it sounds like a joke. He realized how absurd that thought was almost immediately. My husband bought the t-shirts. When he came home, he shared the moment with me because while absurd, it’s also racist. He could have pretended like it was nothing or found a million excuses for why that thought popped into his head.
These are racist acts. And if white people don’t acknowledge these as racist acts, we have no hope of shifting course. These are not racist acts on par with shooting a black, 12-year-old boy playing in the park. Please know, I’m not equating the two. But one thing undoubtedly leads to the other.
When white people don’t understand how our history of enslaving and oppressing black people has created a culture of violence against them, we’re doomed to continue the cycle. Protests and advocacy organizations can only do so much. We need to confront the “good, white, well-intentioned” savior in all of us to save lives.
As I write this, though, I realize how incomplete my ability is to explain the breadth and depth of racism, as a white person.
I am not saying that white people do not see or feel the pain of racism; especially those with black family members for whom racism can be exponentially more evident, I’m sure. But, for black people, racism is violent, it is blatant, and its effects are not at all hard to see or feel.
So, what do we do?
White people need a new way of talking about our own racism and racist actions: one that includes the present, that stands face-to-face with the anger appropriately directed at white people for our shared history of oppression that blankets the lives and bodies of our black fellow human beings to this day. We need to live in the uncertainty and, whether afraid or not, be able to discuss our own potentially racist thoughts or actions with other white people who are willing to do the same. White people must open up to each other, acknowledge our racism and figure out ways to confront and change those racist thoughts and actions.
In short, we need to stop forgiving ourselves and start finding a way through this shit. Don’t grind to a halt. And if we feel guilty for a racist thought or behavior, acknowledge it and move on. Take responsibility and pledge to stay present and aware. No one cares if you’re nice or well-intentioned or you’re “really a good person” if, at the end of the day, your actions negate those things.
If we acknowledge our everyday racist acts, with each other, and start to live in that awkward and uncomfortable space for a time, there’s the chance for change. We can shift our behavior. We can stop our racist actions in their tracks. Big, public, loud actions in the form of protests are powerful pushes toward social change. But small, everyday transformations in our own lives may birth bigger, more immediate changes in the lives of the people standing right in front of us—in our workplaces, on the streets, and in our homes.
Amie Newman is a global women’s health communicator, a procrastinating writer, and a recovering good, white person who lives in Seattle with her partner and their two beautiful teen-humans.