On a story about George Stinney someone recently posted, I saw a comment from a well-meaning white person that said “Racism is pure evil.” Which, sure, but I want to talk to my white friends about why things like that actually do harm to the cause of shifting the thinking of white people who want to do better.
Racism is a lot of things. Yes, it is white supremacists, it’s racist cops in the Jim Crow South, it’s slavery. It’s easy for white folks to point to those distant things, call them racist, yell “Evil!” and completely wash our hands of the race problem in America. We’ve done our job. We’ve pointed out malfeasance, called it what it is, and walked away. We’re not lynching innocent black people. We’re not looking black job applicants in the face and telling them they can’t work in our company because they’re not white. We’re not personally telling people of color where they’re allowed to live. So, then, where are the racists? Who’s causing the problem?
We all are, all of us white people, because of the other thing racism is. Racism is also a vast web of small, subtle interactions and decisions by white people that reinforce white as the norm, as preferred, as the top of a pyramid of housing, education, and income inequality. This is the system in “systemic racism.” If you are white and actively participating in American society, you are part of this web. And that is not your fault. That does not make you evil.
Calling racism only evil flips a switch in every white person’s brain that immediately rejects any implication that they may feel prejudice or discriminate in their daily lives, when it is almost guaranteed that they (you, I) do those things. Understanding this difference allows us to do the work of monitoring our actions, reactions, and comments and checking anything that might be coming from a place of prejudice.
The good news is this sort of work is not hard! It is constant, and it will challenge the view you hold of yourself and your white friends and your place in society and history, but it costs you nothing. I have cribbed this entire line of thinking from Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility; it’s one of the first books I checked out when anti-racist reading lists started making the rounds. I’m only a third of the way through this one and after a few hours of reading I’ve already been able to see the faults in my thinking about racism and what I can do to help make things better. I want to share the message with you because we white people have to work on ourselves to improve the situation in this country.
I want to add that the woman who wrote that comment voted for Trump in the primary, and I can only assume she supports the death penalty. I’d love for that assumption to be wrong but I would be very surprised. Donald Trump’s first entry into public life was a lawsuit against him and his father for racist housing policies. He took out a full page ad in a NYC newspaper to call for the death of five boys, all minorities, for the rape and assault of a woman in Central Park over a year before their trials took place. Their convictions were vacated years later. This is to say nothing of the constant stream of racially charged, if not outright racist, speech he has made on Twitter and at the podium in his time as president. So how could a person who so openly claims racism is evil support a man who so clearly holds racist views deep in his heart? Well, if racism is evil and she supports a racist candidate, that would make her evil, but she knows above all that she is not evil, and thus must not be racist. You see the trap.
Here’s a reading list. Join me in the work. https://bookshop.org/lists/antiracist-reading-recs