In my work to unravel the dynamics of racism, I have found a question that never fails me. This question is
“Is this claim true, or is it false?”; we will never come to an agreement on a question that sets up an either/or dichotomy on something as sensitive as racism. Instead I ask, “How does this claim function in the conversation?” If we apply this question to these two sets of narratives, one color-blind and the other color-celebrate, we see that all of these claims ultimately function in a similar way; they all exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem. They take race off the table, and they close (rather than open) any further exploration. In so doing, they protect the racial status quo.
These typical white racial claims depend on an underlying framework of meaning. Identifying this framework can help us understand how we manage to make such claims in the context of extreme segregation and racial inequity.
Imagine a pier stretching out over the water. Viewed from above, the pier appears to simply float there. The top of the pierâthe part that we can seeâsignifies the surface aspect of these claims. Yet while the pier seems to float effortlessly, it is, of course, not floating at all; it is propped up by a structure submerged under the water. The pier rests on
pillars embedded in the ocean floor. In the same way that a pier sits on submerged pillars that are not immediately visible, the beliefs supporting our racial claims are hidden from our view. To topple the pier, we need to access and uproot the pillars.
The above claims are all meant to provide evidence of the speaker's lack of racism. For example, in a conversation about racism, when white people say that they work in a diverse environment or that they have people of color in their family, they are giving me their evidence that they are not racist. If this is their evidence, how are they defining racism? In other words, what underlying system of meaning leads them to make that claim? If working near people of color is the evidence that distinguishes them from a racist, then evidently a racist cannot work near people of color. This claim rests on a definition of racism as
; a racist is someone who presumably cannot tolerate even the sight of a person of color. According to this logic, because they know or work with people of color, or lived in New York, where they saw people of color all around them, and have spoken with and smiled at people of color, they cannot participate in racism. When we go beneath the surface of these claims, we can see their superficiality, for even an avowed white nationalist who would march openly in the streets chanting “blood and soil!” can interact with people of color, and very likely does so. In fact, I have seen black reporters interviewing open and avowed white supremacists on television, with both parties proceeding calmly and respectfully.
Someone who claims to have been taught to treat everyone the same is simply telling me that he or she doesn't understand socialization. It is not possible to teach someone to treat everyone the same. We can be told, and often are told, to treat everyone the same, but we cannot successfully be taught to do so because human beings are not objective. Further, we wouldn't
to treat everyone the same because people have different needs and different relationships with us. Differential treatment in itself is not the problem. For example, I wouldn't give a document with a twelve-point font to a person with low vision, even though someone else wouldn't have any trouble reading it. The problem
is the misinformation that circulates around us and causes our differential treatment to be inequitable.
The feedback I have heard repeatedly from people of color is that when they hear a white person claim to have been taught to treat everyone the same, they are not thinking, “All right! I am now talking to a woke white person!” Quite the opposite; some version of eye-rolling is taking place as they sign the white person off as unaware and brace themselves for yet another exchange based in white denial and invalidation.
As a culture, we don't claim that gender roles and gender conditioning disappear the moment we love someone of the “opposite” gender. I identify as a woman and am married to someone who identifies as a man, yet I would never say, “Because I am married to a man, I have a gender-free life.” We understand that gender is a very deep social construct, that we have different experiences depending on our gender roles, assignments, and expressions, and that we will wrestle with these differences throughout the life of our relationship. Yet when the topic is race, we claim that it is completely inoperative if there is any level of fond regard. In an even more ludicrous form of reality, we even go as far as to claim that racial conditioning disappears if we can calmly walk by people of color on the streets of large cities.
While the implication that a racist could not tolerate knowing, working next to, or walking among people of color is rather ridiculous, the sad fact is many whites have no cross-racial friendships at all. Perhaps this is why we rely on such flimsy evidence to certify ourselves as racism-free. But even those that have cross-racial friendships and use these as evidence of their lack of racism still invoke the binary of racist = bad / not racist = good binary. They see their friendship as proof that they are on the not-racist side of the binary. Yet cross-racial friendships do not block out the dynamics of racism in the society at large, and these dynamics continue unabated. The white person will still receive white privilege that a friend of color does not, even when the two people engage in activities together. Nor do these friendships block out all the messages that we have internalized and that are reinforced in
this society. In fact, racism invariably manifests itself within cross-racial friendships as well. Racism cannot be absent from your friendship. No person of color whom I've met has said that racism isn't at play in his or her friendships with white people. Some whites are more thoughtful, aware, and receptive to feedback than others, but no cross-racial relationship is free from the dynamics of racism in this society.
Many whites believe that if they are not talking about racism with their friends of color or if their friends are not giving them feedback about racism, then racism is a non-issue. But just because you and your friend don't talk about racism does not mean it isn't at play. Indeed, this silence is one of the ways that racism is manifest, for it is an imposed silence. Many people of color have told me that they initially tried to talk about racism with their white friends, but their friends got defensive or invalidated their experiences, so they stopped sharing their experiences. If racism is not a topic of discussion between a white person and a person of color who are friends, this absence of conversation may indicate a lack of cross-racial trust.
The good/bad binary is powerful and enduring. In what follows, I offer counternarratives to a few of its most popular claims. Notice how each of these claims labels the person making them as not racist, thereby exempting them from further involvement or responsibility.
“I was taught to treat everyone the same.”
As explained above, no one can be taught to treat people equitably, because humans cannot be 100 percent objective. For example, I could lecture you for hours that it is not nice to judge, that no one likes to be judgedâ“You wouldn't want to be judged, would you?”âand so on. At the end of that lecture, you would still continue to judge, because it is impossible not to. We can try to examine our judgments, hold them more lightly, and so forth, but to be free of judgment? Not possible. Nor can we treat everyone the same. Indeed, the person professing to treat everyone the same is stating a value that he or she holds, but the claim closes off any further reflection. Once we understand the power of implicit bias, for example, we know that we must deepen rather than
close off further reflection. Although deepr reflection won't free us of unconscious inequitable treatment of others, it will get us closer than will outright denial.
“I marched in the sixties.”
Someone who tells me that they marched in the 1960sâlike the person who tells me they know people of colorâis telling me that they see racism as a simple matter of racial intolerance (which clearly they don't have or they could not have tolerated marching alongside black people during the civil rights movement). They are also telling me that they believe that racism is uncomplicated and unchanging. Yet in the 1960s, we thought race was biological. We used terms like
Nevertheless, in the light of an action they took more than fifty years ago, they see their racial learning as finished for life. Their action certifies them as free of racism, and there is no more discussion or reflection required. It also assumes that absolutely no racismâeven unconsciouslyâwas perpetrated toward blacks by well-meaning whites during the civil rights movement. Yet the testimony of black civil rights activists tells us otherwise. How many white people who marched in the 1960s had authentic cross-racial relationships with African Americans?
Certainly there was (and still is) racial segregation throughout the North, too, perhaps not as explicitly enforced but surely enforced implicitly in countless ways. Perhaps many of those white Northerners who came down South to save black people had some patronizing or condescending attitudes? Might many have dominated discussions, not listened to others, and assumed to know what was best? Did they say many racially problematic things that Southern blacks were forced to endure? Had I been old enough, I probably would have marched in the 1960s, and yet as far as into the 1990s, I was saying and doing racially problematic things. Although I do them less often and less blatantly today, I still do them. Again, the claim that someone is not racist because the person marched in the 1960s rests on the simplistic definition of racism as a conscious intolerance of black people.
“I was the minority at my school, so I was the one who experienced racism.”
While everyone of every race holds prejudice and can discriminate against someone of another race, in the US and other white/settler nations, only white people are in the position to oppress people of color collectively and throughout the whole of society. This claim defines racism as a fluid dynamic that changes direction according to each group's ratio in a given space. While a white person may have been picked onâeven mercilesslyâby being in the numerical minority in a specific context, the individual was experiencing race prejudice and discrimination,
This distinction is not meant to minimize the white person's experience, but aims to clarify and to prevent rendering the terms interchangeable and thus meaningless.
Moreover, the society at large is still reinforcing white supremacy, and everyone in the school was affected by it. It is likely that white students at such a school were treated better by teachers and that higher expectations were held for them. Their textbooks, the curriculum, and the administration still reinforced a preference for whiteness. Outside the school (and in many aspects within it), these students were still granted white privilege as they moved through society.
For most whites, being the minority in their school or neighborhood is usually temporary. They are probably no longer the minority in their environment as upward mobility generally entails moving away from integrated spaces or those in which people of color are the majority.
“My parents were not racist, and they taught me not to be racist.”
Whether you define racism as racial prejudices and individual acts or as a system of racial inequality that benefits whites at the expense of people of color (as antiracists do), your parents could not have taught you not to be racist, and your parents could not have been free of racism themselves. A racism-free upbringing is not possible, because racism is a social system embedded in the culture and its institutions. We are born into this system and have no say in whether we will be affected by it. I understand that many parents tell their children to not be racist, but the
practice of our lives is more powerful than the words we say, and living a segregated life is a powerful message of practice. Of course, there are degrees, and it is certainly more constructive to be told that racism is wrong rather than right, but that is still not enough to completely inoculate us from the culture at large.
Let's imagine that what the person really meant was this: “My parents were not racially prejudiced, and they taught me not to be racially prejudiced.” This statement would still be false because it is not humanly possible to be free of prejudice. This statement simply indicates that the person is uneducated about the socialization process and the inescapable dynamics of human culture. A person's parents might have said that they were not prejudiced and thus denied their prejudice. They may have told their children that they should not be prejudiced, the result being that, like their parents, the children deny their prejudice. The parents may have sincerely hoped and believed that they were raising their children to not be prejudiced. But we can't teach humans to have no prejudice at all. The human brain just does not work that way as we process information about others. Most of us only teach our children not to admit to prejudice. A parent training a child not to say certain things that are overtly racist is teaching the child self-censorship rather than how to examine the deeply embedded racial messages we all absorb. Ideally, we would teach our children how to recognize and challenge prejudice, rather than deny it.
“Children today are so much more open.”
As for the claim that children are so much more open, research over the past two decades indicates that children are vastly more sophisticated in their awareness of racial hierarchies than most people believe.
Even when race is not explicitly discussed, children internalize both implicit and explicit messages about it from their environment.