photo by Katie Tegtmeyer on Flickr
The most destructive lie that we were taught as liberal white kids in America was not that racism was over, it was that we were not racist. No matter how polite we are, or how many times we sang along to ‘We Are The World,’ what we have not done betrays us.
I spent the first thirteen years of my life in the American midwest, in neighborhoods that were predominately, but not entirely, white. And because I was a white kid, I didn’t notice. We were taught in school that all people are equal, but were raised outside the classroom on a million micro-messages and subtly reinforced assumptions about what skin color “usually means” - in ways as simple as driving through predominately black neighborhoods and registering how they differed from our own, or as obvious as the Hollywood stereotypes we brought home from the movies. We talked about racism, but never as anything other than past tense or somewhere else. It was a mistake that other people made. I was taught that “all races are beautiful,” but all my friends and all my heroes looked like me. The lessons of equality were abstract, but the lessons implied by the hue of my childhood experience were not. Looking back, or maybe looking inward, the worst part, the most destructive part of a liberal American childhood, is that we were actively taught to believe that we couldn't be racist.
We were raised to understand how lucky we were, and to believe that we were already on the winning side of history. We were the heroes of the Civil War. Our side won. We were the good guys. And I clearly remember learning about Martin Luther King, Jr and the civil rights movement as something those crazy people in the South were doing. We didn’t have confusing things like segregated schools or parents who used the “n word”. It was totally 100% clear that we were the not-racists, if for no other reason than we had such clear examples of what racism was - and we didn’t do any of that awful stuff. And besides, there were like ten black kids in our school. I imagined their lives in Cosby-show clarity. So clearly, we were the not-racists. The good guys.
Unfortunately, that's completely insane. Racism isn't graded on a bell curve, and we're not off the hook just because we can point south at confederate flags and white robes and Dylan Roofs.
It's true that internalized and structural racism can be difficult to identify when you’re on the privileged side of it, and when not seeing it is much, much easier. But we don't stand a chance at addressing the inequalities of our nation if we can’t even see the bias we carry around in ourselves, or how devastating that willful blindness is to those we claim to see as equals. It is hypocritical to say that we reject acts of violence and race-based terrorism like those that continue to play out across our country when we do nothing beyond sending our prayers and waiving our fingers. It exposes us to everyone, it seems, but ourselves.
It’s ugly. But any progress requires looking that ugly in the eyes. Our eyes. We have to consider that we are not all that we thought we were. We're not the good guys, and we need to see that our inaction, our non-involvement, and our we-don't-have-to-get-involved-because-we-haven't-done-anything-wrong, is racism's support system. Not as flashy as confederate flags, but every bit as destructive.
In a recent article, Clare Bayard said:
"For those of us white people living in this time and place, who think that in apartheid South Africa we would have actively opposed white supremacist rule, who think that if we'd been alive during the civil rights era we'd have been Freedom Riders or at least supported the sit-ins, if you would have actively condemned the Birmingham church bombing as a terrorist act... don't sleep on this moment we live in now in which you too are being called to take a stand.”
So many of us have thought exactly that - have looked backwards in time at the heroes we imagine we would have been. But somehow right now, in this moment in time, are doing nothing. So if you have not yet found a way to engage in this struggle, perhaps the question to ask yourself is “Who am I, truly, if I do nothing?”
The answer, by the way, is racist. Doing nothing is racist. And absolutely no one will look back fondly on all those really clever, not-racist opinions you have.
What we fail to do kills people every day. Kills our fellow Americans. If you really want to fight a war on terror, take a good long look in the mirror.
Not-being-racist is not just being nice to everyone. It's certainly not a geographical birthright or a lucky coincidence. We were born into a country with a long, inescapable history of white supremacy. We're not the good guys. The problem is us, and we’re the ones that have to do better. Start right now.