As I came home from work on Thursday, I could see one of my roommates on the phone at the other end of the house, waving me towards him, a look of concern and distress in his eyes. We went outside, where he shared what had happened a few minutes prior. He, who I’ll call L, had just had a bizarre interaction with our other roommate, who I’ll call M. (I’ve changed the identities, left out specifics and received M’s permission before posting this.)
M had all of the sudden begun speaking incoherent non-sequiturs to L and locked herself in her room. He didn’t know what was going on and didn’t know what to do. What followed was a four-hour series of events where I tried to assist someone experiencing a severe mental health crisis while encountering my own unfitness to do so and the frustration at a lack of safe options available.
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.