Dear White People,
It’s been awhile since our last chat, but I’ve been noticing that you keep fundamentally misunderstanding what racism is. So let’s start with the basics:
Racism is not about you.
You’ve spent too long thinking about racism as a personal animus — a dislike or mistrust for people who don’t look like you. This cartoon caricature of what racism is prevents us from resolving very real problems.
This world view implies that the end of racism will come when we make people — especially white people — “less racist” by minimizing bias. You seek to provide diversity training and to encourage diversity. To make white people “better”.
But racism isn’t merely malice towards people who don’t look like you, or bias against them. It’s a systemic preferencing of the issues that affect white people over those of people of color. Racism is a system, a system of inequality that treats one group of people — one arbitrary group — differently from another.
Deleting your personal bias from our world will not undo the lasting systemic effects that have reinforced racial inequality, from segregation to education to mass incarceration.
And so when we talk about racial discrimination in employment, or random police stops, or drug criminalization, when you should hear “this system is racist”, you instead hear “you are a bad person”. And out comes that ubiquitous five word response:
I am not a racist.
Those were the words of Michael Richards (Kramer) after his now infamous “He’s a nigger!” rant.
Those were the words of Donald Sterling after he was recorded telling his girlfriend not to be seen publicly with black people (not to mention the federal discrimination case against him for his racist housing policies).
And if you cannot admit to seeing racism in even the most obvious cases, is it at all a surprise that the nuance of structural racism continues to elude us?
This past week, tragedy struck in Paris, and the world united in solidarity. Despite similar events in Beirut and Kenya — despite similar events in non-Western countries on a nearly daily basis — they received no such solidarity.
Is it racism driving the wildly disproportionate empathy with the tragedy in Paris compared to that in Beirut? Was it racism driving the same comparing Charlie Hebdo to the Boko Haram massacre?
It’s complicated. It should be noted that this isn’t the media’s fault. News stories covered both events. However the consumers of media, particularly people in the Western world — people who have more wealth and social power than those elsewhere — have more of a connection to France than to Lebanon, whether it be a semester abroad, a family member, or even a class taken about France or in French, and they identify with France as a result. Are these people racists? Not really. But is the overall result — the systemic validation of white pain, of the white experience — a product of racism?
Yes. But it is not the obvious racism of white robes and burning crosses. Nor is it the coded racism lurking behind phrases like “states’ rights” or “urban culture” or “welfare queen”. It is the structural racism that implicitly values the experiences of white people, while turning a blind eye to those of people of color, and the systemic injustices that arise as a result.
Fighting racism is not about fixing you: making you “less biased” or “not a racist”. Fighting racism isn’t even about making you fundamentally care about the issues that face people of color just as much as you care about the issues that affect you.
Fighting racism is about undoing the all-encompassing systemic inequalities that have arisen as a result.
I’m not telling you not to empathize with Paris in these tragic times. In these trying times, they need our support and love and solidarity.
But try to remember that horrible atrocities like the act of terror in Paris happen all the time — in countries you never think about. Try to imagine how it must feel to know that the world doesn’t care about you, never has, and probably won’t in your lifetime. Only then will you understand why somebody might believe that they are at war with the Western World and must drive conflict with it at any cost.