I am a mom to a biracial son and I struggle to write about my relationship with racism and white supremacy. I am trying to educate myself and protect my son and I am afraid for his well-being in our country. Because of my son, I know that I have to make sure I have examined and discarded every racist ideology and legacy that I have been taught.
I was raised racist.
I have family members who perpetuate racist sentiments. I am not proud of this and I deeply wish I could erase the parts of me that instinctually differentiate between the people I see based on skin color, and perceived class. It is normal to notice differences, however, it is a very different thing when I assign a preconceived judgment or opinion on someone based on the color of their skin, their education, their neighborhood, or their perceived wealth.
I began writing by asking the question, “Am I racist?” As I self-examined, my perspective changed to the question, “Am I perpetuating white supremacy?”
If you asked me some years ago “Are you racist?” I would have adamantly said “No”.
I would have said,
I have lots of friends of color – African Americans, Indian Americans, Mexican Americans – I am open to learning about their cultures and I love all people. For God’s sake, my son is biracial!
However, when I take a hard look at my subconscious and the instincts that take control whenever I am caught off guard, whenever I ask myself, “Am I racist?” my answer must still be “Yes.” Having friends of color and a biracial son doesn’t make me not racist.
This is what I learned in recent years as an adult, from folks who love me enough to tell me the truth. Racism is not just institutionalized prejudice or the system whereby white people have oppressed people of color – it is also the way we, as white people, support, benefit, and buy into these oppressive systems.
Ibram X Kendi describes racism as being about actions, not people. You can love and respect and value Black people, but if you do nothing to disassemble the way you as a white person benefit from racism, you are not anti-racist. I want to learn how to be anti-racist. My father always said, “You are no better than anyone else and no one is better than you,” however this wasn’t what his actions showed me. He had no clients that were Black, no friends that were Black, and we didn’t associate with people of color in any part of our social life. My father said those words, but he didn’t act on them.
Growing up in the South, some of the racism I saw and perpetuated was conscious and blatant – like people using the “n” word and telling jokes about Black people, about Polish people, or anyone different than them. Referring to a Black man as “boy” was common. But most of the racism was subtle and not out in the open, even inside me, like how I would feel superior because my skin was white, and how I unconsciously believed that Black people were less educated and less clean than white people. This is how I was raised and while I didn’t agree with or participate in overt racism and violence against Black people, I didn’t do or say anything about my privileges and prejudices either.
If you’re a white person in this country and you are not actively working on your own implicit bias, then you are 100% passing your biases and prejudices on to your kids. Racism is just too pervasive for that not to be the case. When we tell our kids “all people are equal” but support systems of white supremacy, tacitly or overtly, they learn from what we do.
If you’re white in this country and you’re not working for racial equity, you’re passively working against it, because the default in our country is racial injustice.
Most people don’t make racist jokes overtly anymore either, instead, they shake their head about “how dangerous” a certain area of town is, or talk about how “some people” don’t respect the law. Or worse, declare themselves to be “colorblind”. To say you are colorblind continues the cycle of white supremacy and by not acknowledging that Black people and other people of color are discriminated against in job opportunities, educational systems, and in access to things like housing and neighborhoods that white people take for granted.
The issue in this country isn’t generic prejudice based on race- we don’t have a problem with Irish folks oppressing Australians; we have a problem with white folks oppressing everyone else, and most specifically, Black people. We don’t have a generic racism problem; we have a very specific white supremacy problem. As my pastor says, “like any other demon,this demon resists being called out by name, because then it is vulnerable. We use euphemisms and generalities because this demon prefers it that way.”
White people really need to hold each other accountable for not speaking the truth about white supremacy.
What I feel less schooled in is how to resist being part of white supremacy and from benefiting from white privilege, or how to help overcome subtle racism and racist micro-aggressions. I don’t know what it feels like to be monitored while shopping in a store or being fearful when pulled over for speeding for a minor traffic violation.
However, my naïveté or ignorance ARE examples of white privilege.
I am a recovering Southern racist. I’m broken, and I’m infected, and I want to be well. But like a recovering addict, I will always be susceptible to the sway of white supremacy. It’s easy to lean back into a comfortable system that assumes the best about me, as a white person, and my motivations.
In some towns in Vermont, Black drivers are pulled over four and half times more often than white people. These disparities are on par and sometimes greater than the national average. Professor Stephanie Seguino of UVM reported that “If white drivers in Brattleboro were stopped at the same rate as Black drivers and were searched at the same rate as Black drivers there would be a 1,000% increase in searches of white drivers in Brattleboro. A thousand percent.”
All the information is there for white folks to read, but we don’t believe it unless someone we know personally tells it to us in a way that resonates. It’s in peer-reviewed journals, but we still want our Black friends to regale us with tales of their worst days before we believe that racism is alive and well in our country. That’s white supremacy.
I recently visited a good friend who said this year had been difficult – not because of COVID restrictions, not because she is a manager of a very busy government office, but because she is a person of color working to help an office of people work through the racial stress of this past year. She shared that this year, which exposed more of the racial disparities in the US, required her to hold listening sessions with American and non-American staff while she, as an Asian American woman was working to understand her own views and perspectives – not necessarily feeling like she has been marginalized but rather feeling privileged in her life. Her reflections may be part of the model minority myth which many Asian Americans are often subject to.
Black people and people of color should not be put upon to retell their traumatic experiences to white folks. White supremacy is a white people problem, it is not the responsibility of Black people or people of color to educate the white.
A few weeks ago, I saw a young Black man on the UVM campus. He was jogging and he was fit and muscular. I immediately thought, “He must be on the football team.” I still have a lot of work to do to retrain my mind to let go of the racism I was taught so early in my life. I want my brain to see a Black man running and think, “I admire how this person is taking care of their body through exercise!”
Me? I’m a recovering racist and I am hopeful that little by little, piece by piece, policy by policy, the structural and internalized racism that currently divides our country will be dismantled.
I hope that our white families, friends, neighbors, and elected leaders will make the necessary changes, including voting for Black leaders, that will make living in the U.S. less dangerous and frightening and more equitable for people of color. History has shown that the folks who will work hardest to dismantle systems of oppression are the people most directly affected by it.