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.
With a few edits, I wrote the below piece before the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It expands on my previous post and shares the path I traveled when it came to beginning to understand racism, white supremacy and my place in it all. It is my hope that as white people grapple with what it means to be white in the United States, and to publicly speak and act around it, that this account may be helpful.
When I was 17 years old, I went on a student exchange trip to Mexico. I ended up having a fantastic time and was perplexed by that. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of my host family and the ebullient friendliness of so many others I met. In looking at why I was surprised that I enjoyed the trip, I uncovered a world I was previously unaware of. I realized that outside of my conscious awareness I had formulated negative stereotypes and expectations about Mexico and Mexicans. I was racist and didn’t even know it! How did this happen? Prior to the trip, I knew no Mexicans personally, so I couldn’t have had a negative experience, and in my home environment racism was frowned upon. Yet here I was with these deeply disturbing attitudes. Upon further examination, I came to understand that my beliefs, about Mexicans in this case, had been formed bit by bit, societally and culturally, until by the age of 17 I held racist views yet was unaware that I held them until they came into conflict with reality.
I hesitate to write this. I do not feel it is my place to take up space opining on what happened. I would, however, like to attempt to hold a space for reflection in this corner of the internet.
Nine people are dead. How does one respond? For me, the first act is to give space for grief. Lives have been taken, families torn apart, a community terrorized. Those facts easily get lost to analysis and spin. I cannot imagine the pain, loss, disbelief, fear, anger, confusion, sadness, or outrage that this single event has laid at the feet of so many. My heart hurts for those lives stolen and those who now find a piece (and peace) missing in their lives. Those in the midst of this storm must be tended to and cared for.
The next part is to understand. I am not original in identifying this massacre as the culmination of what white supremacy offers. The Charleston killings are only the latest manifestation of a politics and belief structure embedded in the fabric of the United States. One that traces its legacy from the genocide of the indigenous populations to slavery to Jim Crow to the prison industrial complex to Ferguson and countless indignities and atrocities committed along the way. This was not an aberration or a bad apple, it is part – granted, an extreme part – of how the institution of white supremacy unfolds in the United States.