On Being A Racist

Photo: Alejandro Alvarez

Two weeks ago, a crowd of white men carrying torches wound their way through the campus of the University of Virginia. As the men converged on a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the planned removal of which they had come to protest, they shouted Nazi slogans. 

Blood and Soil! 

Jews will not replace us! 

Taken together, their torches and their animus evoked a midnight gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. The following afternoon during a confrontation with anti-racist protesters, one of the marchers murdered a young woman, running her down with his car.

Three days later, my wife had an ultrasound. We watched on a monitor as the technician pointed out the hair on our baby’s scalp, then the outline of a delicate nose and lips. My wife and I are white. More accurately, we are a combination of shades that, depending on the body part, ranges from dirty orange to fuzzy peach to a beautiful pale eggshell color, but our people have come to refer to ourselves as “white,” and our child will be too. At some point I will need to begin giving him or her an account of the world. Amidst all the beauty and sorrow and history and context that come with being alive, my account will include some attempt at explaining how affairs between people who look like us and people who don’t reached their current state in our nation.

I wish I could tell my son or daughter that racism was an artifact of history, a problem that had been solved in the past, but of course it’s not.

It would be convenient if I were able to explain that racism is something that only happens in the southern United States, or rural areas, or the inner city, or anywhere other than where we actually live. But Oregon, where my child will be born, legally barred black people from even entering the state until 1926. At the time that law was taken off the books, we had the largest contingent of Ku Klux Klan members in any state west of the Mississippi. We have such a racist past that we were once described by the historian Karen Gibson as a state that seems to have broken off from the Deep South and wandered away.

Despite these bitter realities, I myself might still be able to come off looking like a decent person if I were able to tell my child that, though racism exists everywhere, it doesn't exist within me.

But I would be lying.

+  +  +

I am a racist. Not a proud racist, nor a vindictive one, but a racist nonetheless. I want to be allowed to qualify this by saying that I am just someone with a few lingering racist tendencies. Or, that while I may be having a hard time shaking a last handful of incorrect views which I received through osmosis by virtue of being brought up in a racist culture, the militant wing of which I fully reject, I just need a little more time and I’ll finally put all that behind me. The thing is, there’s no difference between the positions I just described and racism. If I only do the occasional racist thing, or hold some racist beliefs, or entertain a few racist notions, I am still a racist.

This is the sad and inconvenient truth at the center of any conversation I have about race. It is difficult to acknowledge that racism finds fertile soil in my heart. Difficult to admit to myself because it is evil, and difficult to admit to others because maintaining the appearance of standing on moral high ground feels safer in our highly charged times. But I’m not standing on high ground. I’m floating fairly comfortably, as I have been for my entire life, in the waters of a cultural system that has methodically kept black people from housing, demonized the Mexican immigrants who pick our food, and stereotyped anyone vaguely Asian looking as a perpetual foreigner, no matter how many generations their family may have lived in this country as full citizens.

Steeping in the water of white America for decades has had a profound effect on me. Growing up, I heard enough racist jokes during sleepovers, saw enough racially inflammatory material on TV, took in enough racism just by being awake and breathing, and, perhaps most importantly, received little enough instruction in how wrong this was or how to resist it, that I made it far into adulthood before I ever confronted the well of darkness pooling beneath the surface of my heart.

I was taught about slavery in my Ohio grade school, by black teachers as often as white. I read about Manifest Destiny, and European colonization, and Wounded Knee. I encountered Toni Morrison in high school and Howard Zinn in college. But until the summer of 2009, nothing had ever punched through the veil of my privilege and ignorance. Until that summer I hadn’t realized, let alone owned, that I was a racist. It had been relatively easy to keep the revelation at bay, given that every family member and friend I had was white, and none of them challenged my thinking on the issue.

I was in Seattle that summer of ‘09, studying for a master’s degree in psychology. Needing some elective credit, I signed up for a short intensive course called “Multicultural Issues,” not knowing exactly what to expect. The class was taught by Dr. Caprice Hollins, a diminutive black woman with an easy smile. Dr. Hollins guided my classmates and I through a series of questions, activities, and conversations designed to get us talking about the practical realities of relationships between people of different races, and the histories that underpin them.

It was Dr. Hollins' class that finally destabilized my ignorance. Something about listening to my classmates methodically catalogue the stereotypes they’d dealt with their entire lives, and experiencing their irradiating sorrow and anger, finally brought me face to face with the realization that racism was not an abstraction that existed somewhere vague and far away, outside my daily life. It was within me.

+  +  +

The word “racist” is so quickly hurled these days that it can feel like it’s been stripped of its meaning, if not its weight. Weaponized by all sides, it can seem suspiciously like a word that, almost by definition, never applies to the person using it. A racist is always someone else. A racist is never me.

So what do I mean when I say I am a racist? I mean that, to my lasting shame, I have perpetuated racial stereotypes through things that I have said and done, and that I have actually believed those stereotypes. I mean that I have stayed silent amongst groups of white people when someone has made a racially charged statement or joke that left me uncomfortable, letting it go unchallenged and unchecked. I mean that I have feared young black men without provocation. I mean that for decades of my life I accepted the crushing poverty in which my black and Latino schoolmates lived as normal, and lost no sleep over it. 

In addition to these personal failures, I also mean that I have been the beneficiary of a racist system. When you start invoking entire systems, it can feel like there is room to get away from personal responsibility; as if there is a significant difference between the racist system and the racist individual. There is not. The society I was raised in and am a member of has operated for hundreds of years by a set of policies set up to benefit, protect, and give advantages to people who look like me, while marginalizing those who don’t. These policies include redlining, restrictions on voting rights, and inequitable treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. They include the taking of art and ritual from other cultures and using them for our own pleasure and profit, while simultaneously demonizing the very people who created that art and ritual.

We cheer black men on Sundays when they rumble forty yards for a touchdown, blast their music in our cars as we roll down the streets of our white communities, and incarcerate them at a rate that constitutes a form of genocide. The state of Alabama froths with religious devotion every autumn Saturday that their black-majority college football team takes the field, yet did not overturn their state ban on interracial marriage until the year 2000. In the end, more than 40 percent of Alabamians voted to retain the ban. 

+  +  +

Many of the white people I know become faintly indignant when racism comes up, as if everything had long since been settled on this front, if not at the conclusion of the Civil War then certainly sometime during the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember the night several years ago, before I was married, when a friend of my roommate showed up at our apartment. The guy was a photographer, and a Native American woman had apparently contacted him to express frustration at his use of a headdress in a photo shoot. This young man sneered with disgust as he told the story. “Give me a break,” he spat, “People eat Lucky Charms, and I’m Irish, and that’s a caricature of my culture, but I don’t get upset. ” He seemed to think this was a reasonable comparison. It was one of the most tone deaf expressions of entitlement I’d ever personally witnessed.

I wish I could claim I didn’t understand the lure of indignation, but I have felt it myself. For me, indignation often comes out of a place of inner confusion, and a sense of being hemmed in. It can feel like a primal fight or flight mechanism. Except it’s not. Human beings have the capacity to reason, and to receive criticism graciously, and, perhaps most importantly, to repent. It’s just that none of these feel good when we are confronted with the need for them, which is why many white people breeze right past the opportunity to admit they’re wrong, or that the system keeping them in power is a machine that eats human beings. 

+  +  +

During both of her presidential bids, Hillary’s Clinton’s changing stance towards gay marriage was brought up as an issue. Over several decades she had moved from opposing gay marriage to supporting its legalization. That she was labeled a hypocrite for doing this struck me as itself hypocritical, given that this same pendulum swing was one vast numbers of straight people, to say nothing of corporations and institutions, had also gone through. The mainstream culture’s stance toward homosexuality has shifted hugely in living memory. A similar dynamic is at play in our contemporary conversations on race. We live in hypervigilant times, fueled by two-hour news cycles and the ceaselessly roving eye of social media. Perhaps as a result, or perhaps because it is human nature to want to elide our past mistakes, people are quick to crush those they see as being too late to the progressive party, and to broadcast their own sensitivity to racism while denying they have ever been anything but an ally of the oppressed.

Bryan Stevenson, the prominent civil rights lawyer and author of the searing memoir Just Mercy, believes America may never heal from its racial wounds unless her people undergo a truth and reconciliation process akin to what South Africa went through following the end of apartheid. We will never do that until white people can acknowledge that the racial divisions we have are rooted in the fact that we have systematically enslaved, murdered, raped and brutalized nonwhite people in our country from the moment of its founding up to the present day. That is not something to dispute, as I will explain to my child, no matter how strenuously her white friends, teachers, or family seek to downplay it. Rather, it is a set of historical facts as unassailable as any history human beings have ever compiled. The question is not whether the United States has a legacy of profound racial violence and exclusion. The question is whether we will ever truly own what we and our ancestors have done, and seek to make it right.

Perhaps accepting responsibility for our sins and the sins of our fathers will mean advocating for the payment of reparations to the descendants of enslaved peoples. Maybe this would be a meaningful step toward communicating our collective grief, and acknowledging that we have never lived in anything like the meritocracy we pretend to. Perhaps it will mean amending our laws, so that they emphasize the humanity of immigrants, including those who come to our country without documentation, seeking the same promise our white forebears did.

These and other options are open to us, if we would but entertain them, bringing the same creativity and drive we bring to our quests for wealth or pleasure. It may be that in my lifetime a new and greater healing will come to pass. Or we may slide backwards into recrimination, grievance, and further waves of racial violence. As I intend to teach my child, history does not march inevitably toward justice, and there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion.

Ben Bishop