I’ll get straight to the point since I know we’re all busy. It’s time we had a “Come to Jesus moment.” Again.
I say again because what I’m about to discuss has been hashed and rehashed many times before. Still, because countless lives and future generations are at stake, it’s necessary to unpack it once more.
Okay, what do you want to talk about?
I want to talk about racism.
Racism is bad.
True! And I know this will get uncomfortable, but it’s important we talk about ways you contribute to the maintenance of racism and white supremacy in this country.
Oh, I’m not a racist. And I’m definitely not a white supremacist! Check out my safety pin.
Wait! Before you run off, give me a moment to explain what I don’t mean.
I’m not saying you’re a terrible, no good, very bad person. I’m also not saying you glorify Nazism or associate with folks that parade around in white hoods.
What I am saying is the defining biases that have shaped this nation and all that we as a collective society celebrate as ideal—including the very idea of the “American way”—is anchored in a preference for whiteness.
C’mon, that’s extreme. Not everything is about skin color.
Whiteness isn’t merely a reference to skin color. “Whiteness” describes a socially and politically constructed concept. It’s a relational description that exists only in opposition to other categories in the racial hierarchy, with a European origin used to justify slavery. Whiteness defines itself by demarcating a separation from “others.”
This nation was erected by and for white folks. The bedrock of US colonialism and capitalism was codified to satiate the interests of whiteness at the expense of all those who fall outside this means of categorization. This necessarily results in unequal distribution of power and privilege that renders a higher regard for the intellectual, behavioral, and inherent value of those defined as “white”—that’s white supremacy. It’s both a systemic and systematic ideology baked into the social DNA of this nation.
Whoa, hold on. Even if that were true, look at how far we’ve come in this country. Things have definitely changed.
I guess that depends on how you define change.
Sure, this country once openly accepted and celebrated racism. And with the social and political victories of the Civil Rights Movement the cultural imagination of what it means to be a racist began to transform. We underwent a cultural shift that reimagined racism to be the social equivalent to what a devout evangelical considers the most depraved idea of “sin.” Public acceptability and any association with racism developed into a social taboo.
Sadly, this social realignment was only superficial.
While it’s awesome that folks generally recognize that racism is “bad,” there was and remains a profound failure to educate the public about the intricate nature of white supremacy (intertwined with racism) and how it functions as a system that can thrive even in a more subdued manner.
The most common mistake people make when discussing racism (as well as other forms of social oppression) is to conceive of this complex phenomena as being a matter of personal prejudices or individual acts of discrimination. Racial prejudice isn’t the same thing as racism.
On the contrary, racism is a system. Try to visualize a spider web when thinking of this system. Racism manifests as a web of interconnecting, reinforcing institutions that includes our political, economic, cultural, legal, and educational systems.
You know the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That applies here. While things have changed, the status quo remains calibrated to serve whiteness.
So you’re saying all white people are bad?
See what you did there? That gut reaction to interpret this as an attack on your imagined goodness reveals an acceptance of a narrow way of conceptualizing “good” and “bad.” This is something academic activist Dr. Robin DiAngelo has parsed in her anti-racist work. She’s written about this problem before, saying,
The most effective adaptation of racism over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people…a person is either racist or not racist; if a person is racist, that person is bad; if a person is not racist, that person is good. Although racism does of course occur in individual acts, these acts are part of a larger system that we all participate in. The focus on individual incidences prevents the analysis that is necessary in order to challenge this larger system. The good/bad binary is the fundamental misunderstanding driving white defensiveness about being connected to racism. We simply do not understand how socialization and implicit bias work.
This isn’t me saying you’re a bad person. This is me saying there’s a need for improvement and that this involves a more sophisticated understanding of what racism entails.
All white people aren’t the same. Quit trying to clump us together as if we’re not all individuals.
I’m aware that white people aren’t a monolith. Yes, we all possess individual identity. But none of us can escape the reality of common identity. Common identity is imposed on us by an established history of social standards, stratification, controlling images, and stereotypes.
The discourse of individualism—the belief that we’re all individuals and nothing more—is a romanticized idea lodged deep within American culture. This discourse imagines we all act independently from one another and that we all have equal access to opportunity and achievement.
This sounds great, but it’s fiction. The discourse of individualism compels us to believe we’re miraculously untouched by socio-historical context. To consider history as some distant thing detached from the formulation of present life circumstances, cultural norms, and the status quo is a critical error. The discourse of individualism hinders our ability to comprehend our place within social history and all the ways we’re conditioned (and impacted) by it.
Consider how Christianity is the de facto and dominant brand of religious hegemony that is normalized as the standard of our social and political institutions. Many humanists and other nonbelievers recognize the nature of this skewed paradigm and work to subvert this unjust system.
Now replace “Christianity” with “white supremacy” and “religious” with “cultural.” Racism remains the default setting of our culture. The investment of whiteness in racism to the detriment of all other racial minorities resembles Christianity’s quest to maintain dominance to the detriment of all other religious (and nonreligious) minorities.
The discourse of individualism is a scam that demands we ignore how our individuality is subsumed within a larger matrix of socio-historical factors.
I don’t see color. I don’t care if you’re black, white, green, polka-dot.
Another function of the discourse of individualism is the absurd notion of “racial colorblindness,” which is a form of racial avoidance. It’s easy to proclaim “race has no meaning” when whiteness exempts one from certain social deprivations.
Yes, all humans are virtually the same biologically. Yes, race is a social construct. However, we don’t yet live in a utopia where the construct of race goes unevaluated. Until that day arrives, we can’t ignore that some groups of people are less valued by society than others based on this gradation of identity for conscious and unconscious reasons.
Adhering to the cutesy, naïve “we’re all the same” notion exacerbates the problem – it doesn’t solve it. We all possess a racial worldview. Whether or not you recognize this fact is a separate discussion.
Okay, but we’re on the same side. People like Trump, his supporters, right-wingers—they’re the real racists.
I don’t care how liberal or progressive or forward-thinking you believe yourself to be, you have been socialized within an insidiously racist system that centers whiteness.
White people have a tendency to define overt or conscious racial animus as the only “true” form of racism. Those who do this position themselves and the majority of the white population as being “not racist.” This goes back to the good/bad binary and is music to the ears of all those who firmly believe intent trumps all. An unintended consequence of this belief is it disregards the presence of unexamined attitudes ingrained through constant exposure to our racist cultural environment.
Passing the racist buck treats the widespread nature of implicit racism as innocuous and demands we reserve the label of “racist” for card-carrying Klansmen, though many of them would also deny being racist. Racism that adversely impacts employment, housing, voting laws, policing, education, and mass incarceration doesn’t not exist just because many complicit with or involved in these processes are “well-meaning.”
Unless you recognize racism as a systemic issue and actively challenge these systems, you participate in its preservation.
Talking about white people in broad strokes like this seems racist.
That’s because you don’t understand what the term “racism” means.
Refer back to where I discussed racism as being a system. To think that highlighting the relationship between whiteness, white America, and racism is “racist” demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of race and racism.
This is precisely why it’s imperative you have more “tough” conversations about race and racism. Misinformation ensures our cognizance of racism remains shallow. It’s impossible to engage in meaningful anti-racist introspection and to actively defy white supremacy with inaccurate definitions.
What does any of this have to do with humanism?
Humanism is premised on human reason, endeavoring to live ethically and accountably to improve the conditions of society.
If you’re unable to see the relevance of developing an anti-racist lens and its connection to humanist values, what does that say about your conception of humanism?
What can I do?
First, sit with what you’ve just read for a while. Then, go back over it. Consider past experiences or current opinions you hold that relate to this topic. Muster the courage to power through the discomfort.
Next, keep in mind that white guilt has little use. You aren’t creating change by feeling “really, really bad” about the ubiquity of white supremacy and it doesn’t absolve you from accountability and taking action.
Lastly, I’ve compiled the following resources for those determined to work towards an anti-racist analysis. Again, it’s not enough to acknowledge there’s a problem—resistance is essential to ending the problem.
Anti-Racism Resource Guide—A Short List
Allyship is a process and not an identity. Being an ally requires coachability, a willingness to partake in an ongoing process of listening, and (within the context of racial justice) deliberate immersion in the insight of those in the trenches. There is no quick fix to racism. Anti-racism is an everyday, lifelong process. Approach the following at a measured pace that’s conducive to internalizing the content.
- Tim Wise’s in-depth FAQ
- An extended interview with Robin DiAngelo
- Are We Raising Racists?
- White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves
- Finding Myself in the Story of Race
- Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism
- Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person
- Welcome To the Anti-Racism Movement — Here’s What You’ve Missed
- How Silence Can Breed Prejudice: A Child Development Professor Explains How and Why to Talk to Kids about Race
- Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies
- Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book
- Showing Up For Racial Justice, a Partner of the American Humanist Association