by Michelle Palmer
A couple weeks ago, I was in a conversation, and someone mentioned a stereotype about black Americans and followed up the comment with, “Wait, is that racist? I never know.” (It wasn’t.) He’s an intelligent person, and it bugged me that he “never knew” if things were racist or not. But it kind of makes sense.
There’s so much talk about racism in the news and on our social media feeds right now. And the truth is that not everyone thinks deeply, if at all, about racism. Even though Channon or I have probably said everything in this post here on TJ before, it’s important for us to break it down to the basics so the word doesn’t lose meaning altogether.
What is it?!
The dictionary definition of racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” What Dave* (name changed to protect the innocent) said what he did (which I now don’t remember), it was racial, in that it had to do with race, but it wasn’t racist because it wasn’t an indication that he felt himself to be superior on the basis of race.
Part of the confusion about when something is “racist” is that there has been a pervasive push towards “colorblindness.” It’s led to a world where it can feel awkward to acknowledge a person’s race. Attempting to see people without acknowledging their race is neither possible nor helpful. Acknowledging race isn’t racist, but making judgments, particularly negative ones, based on race is.
BUT WAIT. There’s more.
“Racism is a concept that operates on both an individual and institutional level. […] At its core, racism is a system in which a dominant race benefits off the oppression of others — whether they want to or not.” (Zeba Blay) That’s why there can’t be reverse racism. Yes, people of color can be prejudiced against white people; it’s happened to me. It wasn’t fun. But as a white person, the system operates in my favor and always has. (More on that is coming at the end of the month.) This explainer by Michael Harriot is helpful, Reverse Racism, Explained. (DISCLAIMER: Harriot’s writing can be quite colorful.)
What do we do about it?
I cannot stress this enough, fellow white people: WE ALL HAVE INTERNALIZED PREJUDICES. (You can take a test here: Project Implicit.) Yes, all. Step #1 is to admit that sometimes you have racist thoughts. Yes, you. Yes, me. Yes, all. Step #2 is to catch yourself when you think those thoughts, and then analyze and correct them. Then, here are steps 3-8 (in no particular order):
- Read THESE Tuesday Justice posts.
- Get educated. (Don’t know where to start? Click here.)
- Do a cleanse! (Bias Cleanse)
- Widen your circle by making friends from other racial backgrounds.
- Broaden your understanding by following people of other races on social media.
- Keep working on your mind: Pray about it. Meditate on it. Listen to podcasts about it.
Like so much of what we talk about on this blog, the work of challenging our own racist perceptions and ideas is hard, but it’s worth it. It’s worth asking, “Is what I just said racist?” So we can learn how to not say racist things. It’s worth asking, “Why did I assume the worst from that person? Was it the color of her skin?” So we can learn how to not make judgments based on race. It’s not fun, but it’s worth it.
For more information….
- The White Allies Guide to Collecting Aunt Linda
- Seven Rules for White People with Black Friends
- Cheap White Whine: Racism, Affirmative Action, and the Myth of White Victimhood
- Understanding Implicit Bias – Ohio State University
- 29 Stupid Things White People Do and What We Can Do Instead
- We Asked, You Answered: When Should We Call Something ‘Racist’? – Code Switch, NPR