Social scientists understand racism as a multidimensional and highly adaptive system—a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources between racial groups. Because whites built and dominate all significant institutions, (often at the expense of and on the uncompensated labor of other groups), their interests are embedded in the foundation of U.S. society.
If you just read the above quote, you’re probably angry or at least uncomfortable. For those of us on the right, we’ve been told that race is a black and white issue. There is no grey. Either you’re a racist, or you’re not. And for those of us who know we’re not racist it can be offensive to hear that we benefit (and even participate) in a racist system.
The reason why the above quote may push your buttons is because it doesn’t line up with the average American’s view of race. And that’s fine. I’m not asking you to radically shift your mindset, or break down and confess your racial sins (not like you have any). I just want you to calmly and honestly think over what I’m saying.
Now, for the rest of the quote…
Mainstream dictionary definitions reduce racism to individual racial prejudice and the intentional actions that result. The people who commit these intentional acts are deemed bad, and those that don’t are good. If we are against racism and unaware of committing racist acts, we can’t be racist; racism and being a good person have become mutually exclusive.
Simplified: racism is not a dichotomy. Society shouldn’t be treating race as a simple separation between extreme bigotry and extreme righteousness. There’s a lot of grey in this issue; grey that many of us on the right don’t see or won’t address. This refusal to address it isn’t necessarily conscious or malicious. It’s very much a result of our overall outlook, and is even done with fair intentions in mind. But as we right wingers know, good intentions rarely equal good results.
For us, especially those of us who are white, we’ve lived in a system, an environment that shields the racial identities and structures all around us. Many of us don’t know how it feels to be racially oppressed, and that’s normal. It’s a matter of life experiences, not purposeful racism. Again, I’m not saying you’re a racist, I’m saying we can’t see the whole picture. Also, I’m not condoning or otherwise judging the #BlackLivesMatter group in this piece, in case you thought I was.
This environmental shield protests us from “racial-based stress.” It’s what allows us to move through life without any sense of racial identity. It’s why the idea of “white people” is so comical. Whites don’t identify by race. Instead, we find it more natural and relevant to identify by social class, occupation, and other distinctions. Again, this isn’t inherently bad. However, the unfortunate result of this environment is that we become extremely uncomfortable when different racial views come knocking. We know/think/assume we aren’t racist because we look at factors like credentials, occupational history, and personality before we ever give thought to someone’s race. But even when this is true, there are undoubtedly many areas where race-based discussions cause discomfort, and even resentment for us. Below are some examples of what makes us uncomfortable (this isn’t implying every point affects you, but think about which ones do).
- Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity).
- People of color talking directly about their own racial perspectives (challenge to white taboos on talking openly about race).
- People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/desire for racial comfort).
- People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to the expectation that people of color are willing to discuss their stories of injustice/oppression/etc).
- A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s racial perspective (challenge to white solidarity).
- Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white racial innocence).
- Suggesting that group membership (i.e. racial unity/identity/etc) is significant (challenge to individualism).
- An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy).
- Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority).
- Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).
If you weren’t uncomfortable before, you sure are now. Please, keep reading. This isn’t judgment, it’s a discussion, an analyzation of ideas.
I doubt you deal with many of these points. The biggest ones I deal with are A) challenge to white racial innocence, B) challenge to objectivity, and C) challenge to individualism. I’m very individualistic, and have a hard time identifying with groups in general so it’s no shock that I don’t understand racial unity. My environment was never about that. I’m not saying I’m racist, I’m just saying I don’t have a fully formed understanding of race. Remember, race isn’t black and white, it’s not an either-or between racist and not racist. Dichotomies are never helpful to discussions and healing.
Considering the list above, we might rarely encounter these challenges. So when they are presented in front us we feel uncomfortable, offended, and apathetic. Our environment has shielded us from these questions, views, and mindsets. Again, not bad. Most of the time we have zero control of our environment (especially when it matters the most; the developing years).
“We experience a challenge to our racial worldview as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people…Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as a very unsettling and unfair moral offense.”
Again, our environment makes it hard for us to talk honestly and open mindedly about race. Many of us have a low threshold for racial matters. This doesn’t mean we’re racist, unkind, intolerant, or bad (remember the grey area? That’s this). There’s several results of this environment that make it hard for us to discuss race honestly (this is a list of the most common results, and again, it doesn’t mean you participate in every point).
- Segregation: we group with those who are similar to us, and race is a strong similarity. For some of us, we’re not aware of our racial based grouping. We live in white neighborhoods, go to white schools, and are part of predominantly white congregations. We don’t realize this because our environment shields us from racial stress. By the sheer lack of experience in multi-diverse environments, it makes us hard to sympathize or understand racial issues.
- The Good/Bad Dichotomy: race isn’t a dichotomy, but it’s been presented that way for the past two centuries. I don’t hate minorities, so I’m not racist, nor do I participate in a racial system, nor are there major racial issues in the system. My perspective that racist people are bad people, and non-racist people are good people, hinders me from addressing larger systematic racial issues.
- Individualism: Individualism enables us to deny that racism is structured into the fabric of society (to what degree this is true is a discussion for a different article). It puts a barrier against understanding the role of racial unity.
- Entitlement to Racial Comfort: many of us don’t have a strong tolerance to racial discomfort so when the issue is broached we typically react in terms of “something is wrong” and treat it as the exception to an otherwise tranquil system.
- Racial Arrogance: despite many of our low understandings of racial complexity, many of us assume we can still talk in-depth about it. We may dismiss informed perspectives on the issue because they go against our preconceived notions of the issue (thanks to our environment).
- Racial Belonging: we have an unconscious idea of racial belonging. We believe we don’t identify via race, but it’s there regardless.
- Psychic Freedom: we don’t bear the social burden of race in America. We live our lives unhindered by race, and when it does rear its head it’s something minorities have to deal with. We can discuss it and think about, but we can also easily dismiss it because it doesn’t affect us psychologically.
- Constant Messaging that We’re Valuable: “While one may explicitly reject the notion that one is inherently better than another, one cannot avoid internalizing the message of white superiority, as it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.”
Take a second to breath and remind yourself that you’re not getting judged here. This is a discussion. Don’t get triggered (as the SJWs like to say). Now, how does this apply to how Republicans address the #BlackLivesMatter protests, and the recent shootings?
We deal with race in the window of facts and details. When a black man is shot by police, we rush to justify the shooting by pulling out the victim’s background, actions, and behavior. We argue over cold platitudes that do nothing to further the discussion. “He shouldn’t have run,” and “just obey the law,” aren’t arguments. It’s often rhetoric coming from people who’ve enjoyed a racial-stress-free life.
Many of us have no idea how it feels to live as a person of color in America. We may think we do, but we don’t. We address the concerns of movements like #BlackLivesMatter by creating our own counter movements, clarifying that “yes, what happened is horrible, but remember how bad the other guys have it.” Replying to a #BlackLivesMatter person with #BlueLivesMatter is a devaluation of the issues they’re dealing with. It’s like “helping” a friend who’s lost a loved one by clarifying that plenty of people have lost loved ones like (or worse) than them. Actually, that’s exactly what many Republicans do. It’s insensitive and disrespectful toward their fears, loses, and cries for justice. This isn’t to say that outrage over killed cops isn’t legitimate, but that creating a counter-movement to squash a group’s concerns is what is illegitimate. You don’t respond to a friend’s personal injury by pointing out how many people have gotten hurt like them. You help them, first, then, you help everyone else.
Furthermore, we need to start addressing the real problem, which is police abuse and criminal justice reform. Stop avoiding tackling these issues because of who’s affiliated with them. Yes, violent facets of #BlackLivesMatter exist, and the movement sometimes fails to address other facets of black deaths (like black on black violence), but that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing justice for them in the system. How can you expect blacks to deal with black on black violence when the very peacekeepers who are supposed to help are unjustly killing them too?
Stop playing identity politics. Yes, the other side does it, but so do we. We automatically align with the police and “the law” whenever racial issues blow up. We refuse to see our own deficiencies and ignorance.
This new strategy needs to leave behind petty platitudes and buzzwords. It needs to address the concerns of the black community, instead of pushing them aside for the sack of “seeing the injustice on both sides.” It needs to recognize that racism isn’t a black and white issue, and that the system carries some level of racism in it. Holding onto a self-righteousness that reinforces your racial-free identity is proving more and more unproductive.
Caveat here: I’m not saying we need to fully accept movements like #BlackLivesMatter and stop all criticism we have of them. I’m not saying that you need to apologize for your “privilege.” I’m not saying the black community is 100% right, that all cops are bad, or that violence is right (or effective).
What I am saying is that the strategy for dealing with these racial issues is failing. It isn’t working. And we need to move past propping up our narrative of how America works. Recognize what you don’t have experience on. Be open and understanding, but don’t roll over. We have good ideas for fixing these problems, but first we need to move past superficial rhetoric and biases.
Note from Author: all quotes and block quotes have been taken from “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism.” A thought-provoking (and challenging) read, but worth it.