My dad was the kind of racist that was almost too easy to spot. He threw around the n-word and other racial slurs not just casually, but with great frequency. It was impossible to talk to him without also hearing how all those people were the cause of anything and everything bad that he perceived was happening in the world. Friends and acquaintances didn’t always believe me when I would describe the phone conversations where I had to ask him, multiple times, to stop talking like that or I would hang up.It was simply toxic to talk to him, which is why I literally stopped speaking to him at all about seven years before he died. My dad was the kind of racist who made it easy for other people to congratulate themselves that they weren’t racist because they didn’t talk as crudely as he did. We look at guys like my him, or the people waving Nazi flags and throwing Nazi salutes in Charlottesville, Virginia this last weekend, and tell ourselves that we aren’t like that, so clearly we aren’t racist.
But we live in a racist society. We’ve been conditioned to believe all sorts of things about each other based on the color of their skin. Studies show that when we’re shown photographs of black teens of either sex we consistently over-estimate their age, for instance. We’ve been conditioned so that if we look at a young black man, we don’t see a kid, but a thug. We’re pre-disposed to believe that a young black man is not only capable, but likely to hurt someone. We see a video of a dark skinned person carrying a toy gun getting gunned down by police (even though he has dropped the toy and has his hands in the air), and say, “Well, he still looked dangrous.” Then we see video of hundreds of white guys showing up at a political rally carrying rifles and guns and say, “They’re just exercising their rights.”
It is impossible to grow up in a racist society and not absorb a lot of racism. It is also impossible to grow up in the U.S. as a white person and not benefit from all that racism. Part of it is the generational thing: we lived in nicer neighborhoods than we otherwise would because our parents, grandparents, and so on benefited from preferential hiring practices, redlining of mortgages, and unequal distribution of resources for public schools. And it’s easy for us to say, “Well, that was the bad old days. Things have changed, now, and besides, I can’t do anything about it.” But it isn’t just the bad old days. Racist assumptions are baked into all of our social conventions, institutions, and business practices. Studies have shown again and again that changing something as simple as making a name look less ethnic on a resume substantially improves the odds that a submitted resume will get result in a call for a job interview, for instance. We see it in statistics of which people cops decide to stop and question, let alone the ghastly statistics about police shootings.
So if you’re like me, looking at this news this weekend and being horrified that an angry white man who drove his car into a crowd killing a woman (and wounding at least 19 other people), while people ranging from ordinary citizens to news anchors and even the president are bending over backward to say that bigotry isn’t involved—it isn’t enough to say, “Aren’t they terrible people?” We have to be willing to admit that these terrible people were enabled by a society which explicitly benefits white people, whether we individual white people think of ourselves as racist or not.
Some other folks have explained it quite well: How “Nice White People” Benefit from Charlottesville and White Supremacy:
“For white people who don’t self-identify as disciples of Richard Spencer, David Duke, and/or the ancient demon Beelzebub, there is extreme anxiety around the accusation of racism. We see this fear of blame in Trump’s statement. “Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama” seems to say, ‘Hey, there’s been a tense racial climate in this country forever. It’s not anyone’s fault!’ Except the opposite is true. American white supremacy has been a problem forever, and it is all of our fault, fellow white people.
“White people benefit from white supremacy. Period. Peggy McIntosh spelled this out for us in 1989, but apparently we’re still not quite getting it. Her famous piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” lays out undeniable ways that it is simply easier to be white in this country, like always having a boss who is a fellow white person, or, you know, being able to eat Skittles at night without getting shot. Most white people didn’t ask for this privilege. Actually, that’s the whole idea. White privilege is an inherent advantage that easily goes unnoticed and unacknowledged. Rather than stuffing down the sense of shame associated with this obvious unfairness, why not work to even the playing field?”
The referenced article by Peggy McIntosh is also a very good read: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”
We can’t just shake our heads and blame it all on those people. Society as a whole, including us, are to blame. The first step is recognizing that the problem isn’t something which was forced on our country. The problem isn’t something that just appeared recently. The problem has always been there. It has been growing and getting angrier for years. We are part of the problem, so we have to be part of the solution. We have to find ways to oppose this racist authoritarian movement with more than just words.