I want to set up a thought experiment with you…
You’re walking down the street and there’s someone walking nearby. Every so often they cough or sneeze. Upon closer examination, you see that their skin is mottled and somewhat gray, that their eyes are red-rimmed and weepy, and when they speak to you their voice is both raspy and gravelly.
But they tell you “I’m not sick!” And they reason with you that they’re not sick because they don’t feel bad. Sure, you might see some symptoms, but none of that matters. What matters is how they feel. And when compared to people with typhoid or tuberculosis or terminal cancer, they’re positively glowing with health.
Be honest here: Would you take their word at their denials of the symptoms as they sneeze and cough and hack their way down the street? Would you believe them when they say they feel good so they can’t be sick?
Likely you would not. And likely you would find ways to avoid being around them or touching things they touch, or eating with them, or letting them come into your office or school. You’d recognize that they’re sick and that they need help, even if they’re in denial and don’t feel all that bad.
That’s what I was thinking about today when I was watching and listening to some people claim that they could not possibly be racist because they don’t “feel bad” about people of color. Racists, to them, can be identified by their rage and hatred against people of color. These people, you see, are not racist. They merely avoid socializing with people of color, or they drop the Magic Word accidentally, a word that they really never use & never think about. They speak with unknown tongues when they let slip a phrase that just might be seen as racist.
They can’t be racist because they aren’t bad people. Because only bad people can be racist, and they are “good people,” then of course they can’t be racist…
Stands to reason.
But this is not true. Racism isn’t just how you feel at a given moment. Racism is something else, deeper than just emotions that drive you to react in unpleasant, obviously racist ways.
Ta-Nehisi Coates said something a long time ago that really stuck with me when I heard it (or more accurately, read it at The Atlantic): you can be a “good” person and still be racist. You don’t have to be a foul-mouthed, angry white guy threatening a child at a pool or a raging white lady shaking your fist from your porch. You can be polite and drink your sweet tea with your pinky extended and still be racist. Be racist. Not just act out as a racist.
“Good” white people in churches and “good” white people at work can be, and often are, racist. Politeness and manners don’t fix it or cover it, because racism isn’t just a lack of manners or a breach of decency.
Racism isn’t just a charged emotional state. Racism can be that, but racism is usually more than that.
Racism is a three-pronged situation of symbols and stratification and power. (I’m taking this from a definition offered up by Debby Irving in Waking Up White.)
- For us white people in America, the symbol is skin color. We have determined that people with dark skin (especially from sub-Saharan Africa) are a group that can be identified as having a near-monolithic identity. They belong together as a race, and their origin is their identity.
- The stratification is value and access. We have determined that people with dark skin from sub-Saharan Africa are of less value in all of life, and deserve erasure, exclusion, mistreatment, hostility, and disbelief.
- The power is that we white people can make this happen in real life: we can turn our symbols and our stratification into things that are applied against descendants from sub-Saharan Africa.
That is, not only can we white people make judgments and devalue people for entirely irrational and arbitrary reasons (which, of course, is not exclusive to white people), we have the power as white people to make our judgments mean something. We have the power to injure Americans who are in the wrong group, a wrong group defined by us, the right group.
The judgment is racialized because we white people use “race” as our starting point to identify descendants of sub-Saharan Africa, and we even use “race” as our starting point to determine who has the power to make it happen. As we are white, we all participate in this. We’re all racialists. And because we use race to injure, we’re racists.
We can be racist because we participate in that system, even if we don’t feel a single bit of emotional distaste for the unfavored.
Now, Coates didn’t say all that; I’ve been working on some of this myself. But this analysis and conclusion really freed me to look into myself and to work on my own racism, because I feared finding out that I was not good, and that I’d discover that I disliked people. I’d have to believe somehow that my self-assessment of myself as a “good” person was entirely wrong. (I’m just letting you know how I think; I’m not saying this with a sense of pride or pleasure about myself.) That’s just how I am: good people can’t do bad things.
It was freeing because I was able to explore and uncover my very real racism. Sure, I believe racism is a terrible thing to hold. Sure, expunging racism is a life’s work. But I don’t have to make myself out to be a Bull Connor to say “I’m racist and I act in racist ways — I’m a bad person.” I can just say “I’m racist and I’m repenting of my racism daily.” It’s not something I think everyone should use as a way to understand themselves. It’s just how I see it. This helps me to be honest with myself, and to not think I’ve escaped accountability because “I’m a nice person with good manners.”
We tend to use the terms “racist” and “racism” loosely, using it as a judgment sign — racists can’t be decent people, and racists are “those” bad guys, not us.
Using the term accurately, and defining it not by how we feel or what we say, but by what we do and how we protect our system, is how we can discover that we are racist.
You don’t tell the doctor when she says you’re sick “I can’t be sick; I feel fine.”
In a similar way, you don’t tell the observer that you can’t be racist because you don’t feel hate for black people. No one cares, really, what you feel. We care how you express yourself in your actions, and how your actions harm people. When it’s racist actions, then when we call you racist, we’re not demeaning you — we’re just delineating you.
I’m working to understand my own racism and to find ways to break its power in my life. Because racism is an interlocking system (symbols and stratification and power), and systems are hard to break, I’m finding that discovery and uncovering difficult. But as I discover ways to break the system, whether the ways are small or big, I’ll keep you informed.
I just am tired of pretending I’m not sick when I am desperate to be healed.