In a recent post – Racism, privilege, guilt and social justice – I say a couple of times that “I was racist,” in relating my process of becoming aware of white supremacy and white privilege. That realization was a powerful moment for me that I’d like to unpack a bit more. In part, I said it for effect, to put myself out there in no uncertain terms, to bring the issue home to self, because that is where it resides. Racism is not something that happens “out there” but inside of me and everyone else in this society. (This is clearly not an exact formulation and obviously racism plays out very differently internally and externally for people of color than it does white people.)
It is easy to find racism in the most heinous of acts, such as the Emanuel AME Church shooting or the burning of Black churches. To point to something outside and identify and judge it as racist also provides a false sense of separation and distance between the ordinary white person and racism. But what of the seemingly inconsequential, mundane racism that daily insinuates and reinforces itself in our society and culture? The type of racism that truly sustains the system of white supremacy and is the cornerstone upon which is based the fanaticism that leads to atrocities such as the one in Charleston? That is the racism that is reproduced societally but also impacts individually, as I encountered at age 17 and what led me to realize that I was/am racist.
For example, on the individual level, racist thoughts often enter my mind. But I am able to identify them as racist and not react to them. My body is also involved – I have physiological reactions which are triggered due to repeated exposure to racist imagery and narratives. But that doesn’t mean what my body is reacting to – an inaccurate (potentially subconscious) thought – is actually true. “First thought wrong,” is a saying I often rely on for many situations. I also know that I don’t catch every racist behavior, thought, or somatic reaction. White supremacy is deeply ingrained in white people, and in such a way that we are trained to be blind to it. I know that there are thoughts and behaviors that make it past my filters, usually because I am not aware that I am being racist or indulging in white privilege. That I did not know is not an excuse for that behavior, but should personally be used by me as a learning experience and opportunity to amend a situation and behavior, not as an exercise in perpetuating guilt.
If racism emanates from society, it is worth examining what comprises society. Well, extremely simplistically, people do. So if society produces racism, but we make society, where does that leave us? As race itself is a social construct, I don’t believe anyone is born racist or “is” in the existential sense a racist. Yet, as the presence of racism makes clear, we do not make up society equally – it is stratified, hierarchical, institutionalized and weighted by class and privilege. It incorporates histories, cultures, roles and norms that extend far beyond the scope of the individual. Nonetheless, we each have agency. Initially as individuals, but collectively as well. As we identify racism in society, we can seek to change it. The good news being that since they are social constructs, race and racism are malleable.
As just one person, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem and incapable of effecting change. Awareness is a good start, but by itself not enough. Racism is entrenched in society in such a way that it propels itself by its own inertia, requiring intervention beyond the individual level. People may change, but that does not ensure that the system will. That is why intentional, concerted collective action is the next step. What starts in the individual moves on to the collective where in turn it reaches more individuals, building its own version of inertia, its own culture. As collectives already exist, the individual need not feel alone and can get plugged into the work. This work can happen in a myriad of ways. It can look like organizations, study groups, petition drives, workshops, legislation, direct action, panels, leafleting, talking to a neighbor or family member, and much more.
Society is reproduced in part through collective behaviors and responds to collective pressures, especially if focused strategically. If what is now acceptable in terms of racism and privilege is made unacceptable due to collective repudiation, then perhaps more people will be moved to act and circumstances will evolve. If racist messages stop getting fed into society, our thinking and physiology may change.
As mentioned above, the broader change happens through collective organizing, but that first requires change at the individual level. For white people, it starts with identifying the place where racism happens, getting honest with ourselves and others, acknowledging and interrogating our whiteness. It’s not a contest of who can be most perfectly anti-racist. That is impossible in this society. But if we white people can identify honestly to ourselves and others where we are, versus how we’d like to appear to be, and take actions to change, that is a good first step. I believe there is much collectivity-in-waiting when people are willing to get vulnerable. Communal structures of supportive growth and action can lead to drastic change over time. And that is what it will take: mindful, reflective, intentional, diverse, and sustained collective action. Fortunately, that conclusion is not new nor original. In many forms such action has been occurring for a long time now. And so, if you’re a white person who is on board but doesn’t know where to direct your energies, here are some organizations and here are some readings to get started.