Note to my white self…
You are not a white supremacist. You don’t hate people of color. You don’t consciously think of them as inferior. You never use derogatory language to describe them. You believe people of color deserving of the same civil rights and legal protections as you have. Unfortunately, none of these behaviors or attitudes are admirable.
While I’m glad you think such things, these convictions are hardly noble. It is a little like bragging that, when it comes to your children, you “put food on the table and a roof over their head.” Of course you do. You and every other decent parent. Likewise, not being a white supremacist isn’t an achievement. It is a reasonable expectation. Not belonging to the KKK doesn’t mean you are not racist; it means you are not morally deficient.
For you and many others, your racism is far more subtle. It is not an intentional commitment to see people of color harmed or diminished. Your racism is more like a bad habit, gradually developed from observing your grandparents, parents and peers in a racially prejudiced culture. You had these habits reinforced by the media, in school and even by your religion. In such a culture, it would be nearly impossible for you to not be racist.
I know it is difficult for you to see this. Your racism is a habitual behavior. These behaviors – like all such habits – seem ordinary, innocent and normal. Identifying the race of someone of color in describing them. Assuming drug dealers are people of color. Using phrases with racially derogatory histories. Checking your car locks when a black male appears. Fearing people of color who haven’t straightened their hair. These are bad habits shared by many white people. They are habits that often take an outside observer to point out.
Unfortunately, when someone points out a racist behavior, you tend to hear this as a moral indictment. You hear an accusation of some heinous crime. Often, your conversation partner simply wants you to be aware of a bad habit. They are not claiming that you belong to the KKK. They are reminding you that you’re a white person raised in a racially biased culture with a long history of racial injustice. They are not accusing you of being evil, but of being oblivious.
Understanding your racism as a bad habit should lessen your defensiveness. Your racism is not a character flaw. You can continue to see yourself as a good person. Indeed, you are such a good person that you appreciate when someone points out a bad habit that you need to correct. The proper response is, “Thank you. I wasn’t aware of how off putting and offensive that behavior or attitude could be. I will try to act and think differently.”
Understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests a course of action. You know how to eliminate a bad habit. You’ve addressed them before. Awareness is the first step, but you must actively work to change your patterns. This involves quickly altering your behavior when you catch yourself in an old habit. Initially, you’ll catch yourself often, but each incident will reinforce your awareness of your negative behavior and increase your desire to change. Every time you hit your car locks, you’ll be aware of your behavior’s racist overtones. Instead of that behavior reinforcing your prejudice, it will make you aware of it. With vigilance, eventually you will find yourself developing more positive behaviors and attitudes. When it comes to racism, you can become less and less racist if you are committed to eliminating racist habits.
Finally, understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests racism can be greatly diminished in our society. You know of negative behaviors and attitudes – smoking, sexual harassment, gender inequality, homophobia, domestic violence, etc. – that were once either ignored or silently condoned within our culture. While none of these societal habits have been completely eliminated, we’ve made progress. This progress has largely been the result of more and more people understanding such behavior as negative and unacceptable. Many people have rejected the behaviors and attitudes they learned from their grandparents, parents and peers and acted differently. This is equally possible in the case of racism…if you acknowledge you have a problem.
So start acknowledging your racism today. Your subtle racism may not be immediately obvious to you, but it will be if you are willing to accept outside critique. If you are open to this critique, people who are more aware of racial bias can point out your bad habits. When they do so, hear it for what it is – an opportunity to become a better person, to be a little less racist, and to help create a more wonderful world.