On not being racist

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about how many white people are often defensive about racism. When a behavior is called out, they protest that they aren’t racist. They’ll say it’s unfair to say that they are. They say they aren’t racist because they know what a racist is. A racist is someone who does racist things. “Racist things” is an amorphous collection [1] of behaviors that might include:

  • Racists use the “n-word.”
  • Racists overtly refuse to hire black people [2].
  • Racists fly the Confederate flag [3].
  • Racists join the Ku Klux Klan.

The syllogism of whiteness is: Racists are horrible people. I am not a horrible person. Therefore I’m not a racist. When white people are called on racist behavior, the syllogism comes into play, and they react with injured dignity. You’re saying I’m a horrible person.

There is another way to think about racism. Rather than any collection of behaviors, racism is an entrenched, systemic mindset that pervades our thoughts and behaviors in so subtle a fashion that we don’t even recognize it. It is everywhere and it is insidious. It is inside all of us.

If that statement triggers a defensive response, let me ask you to pause and reflect. Because that reflexive, defensive response of, “But I’m not racist” is a result of the syllogism of whiteness I talked about above. Another term for it is “white fragility,” and you can read about it in Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

It’s not enough to be “not-a-racist.” You have to be actively anti-racist. Because if you don’t, if you are content to continue benefiting from the systemic issues, then you can call yourself “not-a-racist” all you want, but your complacency signals consent to racism. I don’t see how that’s a hell of a lot better.

It’s not enough to declare yourself free of racism, quote a certain phrase by Revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior, and tell people, “I don’t see color.” You have to take a stand. Every day. You have to be willing to be wounded–both by things you’ll realize about yourself and by other white people. You have to learn to center the grievances stemming from four centuries of oppression over your own.

  • Recognize that you’re going to screw up. You’re going to offend someone. Racism is so ingrained in our culture that a lot of times, we don’t even realize that what we’re saying is racist. So when you’re called on it, set aside your wounded pride. Apologize. Promise to do better. Then follow up on it.
  • Don’t expect black people to educate you. Black people don’t owe you the education you can give yourself. Google is your friend. So is Wikipedia, believe it or not. Google “redlining.” Google “history of racism.” Google “Civil Right Movement.”
  • Here’s a reading list. Dive in.
  • Banish these phrases from your vocabulary: “reverse racism,” “reverse-discrimination,” “all lives matter.” Better yet, do the work to find out why those phrases are offensive.
  • I’ve mentioned it already, and it’s on the reading list above, but I’ll say again: Read White Fragility. Even if you think it doesn’t apply to you. Especially if you think it doesn’t apply to you.
  • Read, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It will make you angry. It might make you defensive. (It did for me, the first time I read it.) That’s OK. Set it aside, let it percolate in your mind. Then read it again.
  • Know this: ironic racism is still racism. Alluding to racism in a joking way, to show that you “get it” is actually painful to people who are actually suffering the effects of that racism.
  • Stop quoting MLK until you’ve read more than that one speech. You know the one—the one that has the phrase everyone can quote. Especially read, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Play careful attention to his criticism of white moderates.
  • Learn about other civil rights leaders, past and present. The Civil Rights Movement did not spring fully formed from King’s mind like Athena from the brow of Zeus. It was built on decades of organizing, sacrifice, and struggle. Honor the memory of those who fought and were killed. Follow those who still lead today.
  • Listen to black speakers. Read black writers. Follow black people on Twitter. Don’t argue with them. Just listen, read, and think about what they have to say. And when you don’t understand or disagree with something? Go do research. Educate yourself.

Finally, don’t think that I’m saying I’m better than anyone else. Like all of us, I have feet of clay. I stumble. I screw up. I do my best, and I keep trying to make my best even better. We can all do that, and build a better society where racism has no place.


[1] The collection is amorphous because it needs to conveniently omit any behavior that an individual doesn’t want to be challenged on—see below for two examples.

[2] Overtly. There’s a lot of subtle, subconscious refusal to hire black people. Guess what? That’s racist!

[3] Confederate flag-wavers will tell you that they aren’t racist. They’re celebrating “heritage.” They don’t acknowledge that the heritage they’re celebrating is one of treason in defense of slavery. Guess what? That’s racist!