Insight can change the world
No one likes being called a racist. It's such a loaded word. Racists are KKK members. Racists carry Nazi flags. Racists lynch people.
If only it were that simple. If only we could pick out the racists by their khakis and affinity for backyard lighting apparatuses.
But racism isn't only about hate. Racism is about being biased against a group of people and having significantly more power than they do. Because the bias whites have against blacks has been institutionalized, and yet we refuse to acknowledge it, there are unfortunately racists everywhere.Chances are your neighbor is one.Chances are you are one too.
Damn. I probably should have saved calling you a racist for the end of this column.
So let's start with me. I'm a white, middle-class, well-educated, very progressive woman — and I'm racist.
Coming to see my own racism has taken most of my life. Not long ago I would have strenuously insisted I was not racist. But it's impossible to be white in America and not be.
This column has been updated from its original version.
As a teenager living in Greenwich, Connecticut in the '80s, we lived near a prestigious private golf club that didn't allow blacks, Jews, Hispanics or Italians. As an Italian, it confused me why we were included in the ban since Italians are white. That's right. I was more offended to be put in this class of nonwhites than I was that all these other groups were excluded.
Sure, I thought it was wrong to exclude anyone — but I still didn't want to be considered anything other than white. At 15 I had already internalized the message that being white was powerful.
There isn't any one cause of my racism; it's the collective experience of being white in America. My parents held racist views. My teachers, friends and co-workers did too. Racism was on television and in the movies. Stereotypes that blacks aren't as smart as whites, commit more crimes than whites, use more drugs than whites, are more promiscuous than whites and are lazier than whites were everywhere.
And then there was the "harmless" racism: jokes. I had a relative who used to joke that black squirrels carried switchblades. Sure, it's just a joke, and I used to laugh at it. But it isn't harmless because it suggests that blacks are violent criminals. Remember the Willie Horton political ad? Would that ad have been so effective if Willie were white or if whites weren't racist?
My bias against blacks followed me to college, law school, and then private practice. I became very progressive, but I still held many racist views, even though I was not conscious of them. I honestly didn't think I was racist and I would have remained blissfully unaware, but for the iPhone.
For years my black criminal defense clients told me they were being harassed by the cops — but I didn't believe them. I believed blacks committed more crime than whites and that white cops weren't racist, so my clients must be lying. But then I saw the cellphone videos all over YouTube of cops harassing blacks and saying blatantly racist things, and I was forced to confront my assumptions about not only blacks but also whites — and that is what made these videos so powerful.
I had to acknowledge that my bias against blacks led me to assume my clients were lying, when in fact many were not — something about which I am still ashamed — and I had to acknowledge that there were whites out there who acted one way to my face, and quite another to people of color. If "the good guys" were acting like this, how were other whites behaving? How was I behaving?
So instead of being defensive about my racism, I started to acknowledge it. I stopped trying to convince myself that I wasn't racist and started trying to figure out how to be less racist. How to be aware of my privilege — the unearned benefits I have just for being white. I read books like "The New Jim Crow" and websites like theroot.com. I wrote about race for my local paper. I asked my black friends about their own experiences.
It is a constant struggle and honestly the main difference between the person I was five years ago and the person I am today is I am more aware of my bias and able to see it more clearly.
With awareness comes responsibility — the responsibility to call out other whites. The best gift whites can give to black Americans is to speak out. Speak out when our white friends make racist jokes, or don't see their own privilege, or post false negative statistics on social media about blacks, or get angry when black NFL players kneel during the anthem — when we are usually sitting down and shoving potato chips in our faces— but think that marching with Nazi flags and tiki torches is acceptable.
We must not be afraid to make white people uncomfortable; there is too much at stake.
Which brings me back to you.
Maybe you agree with me. Or maybe I've made you angry. Maybe you want to call me a "race baiter" because I've dared to speak about race. Maybe you want to tell me how wrong I am. Don't. I'm not wrong. Instead, let the knowledge that you have racist views wash over you. Then forgive yourself, take a deep breath and recognize that your newfound insight has the power to change the world. And then go talk to your neighbor.