Racism In America
(NOTE: I would be foolish to claim that I know a lot about race, and I am certainly no expert on the topic. Therefore, I share the following information with you not as a professional source of knowledge, but as one human being sharing ideas with another human being.)
Let’s Talk About Racism
This blog post may upset you. It’s about racism in America, which is an ever-present force that many of us are unknowingly contributing to and quite likely benefiting from.
We’ve all heard the occasional, probably-actually-racist opinion or joke rattled off by a coworker, friend, family member, or neighbor (hint: it usually starts with, “I’m not racist, but…”). It’s possible we’ve even said these types of things ourselves without really thinking about it.
What Is Considered Racist?
Nobody wants to think of themselves as racist, because this term conjures up images of people in white hoods who are intentionally pushing for white people to have more power than anyone else, with the notion that white people are somehow “superior.” That’s not me, and I’m guessing it’s not you, either.
However, we need to recognize that racism isn’t simply an all-or-nothing topic. It’s not as simple as “you’re either racist or you’re not.” People can have different degrees of awareness as to how their words and actions may affect people of other races. Therefore, racist actions and words can range from the blatant—such as a violent attack against someone because of their race—all the way to some less-obvious and unintentional forms of racism—like using a word or old saying that you didn’t realize has racist origins.
Both are examples of racism, but one is intentionally harmful, while the other does not intend any harm. At the same time, many of these unintentionally harmful words and actions do continue to perpetuate a climate of hostility, ignorance, and disrespect towards people of other races—even if we didn’t realize it and didn’t mean to do this.
What To Do About It
The first step is to start recognizing prejudice in our everyday lives, and within ourselves. As with most problems, it will be easier to see the subtle prejudice in other people’s actions than it will be to recognize it in your own actions. Everyone has biases, whether they realize it or not (science has proven this). If you want help recognizing some of these biases as they play out in our society, I’d like to offer three book suggestions that could help you get started. Below each book description, I will post some of the quotes I have found most insightful, interesting, and challenging (to our beliefs and opinions).
Regardless of whether you choose to get the books, I encourage you to read through some of the quotes below in order to be more aware of some thought-provoking ideas about racism and bias in our culture.
(While I will post the links to the books, I encourage you to check your local library first.)
1. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, is an engaging and thought-provoking novel that describes American racism through the eyes of a teenaged woman of color. The audio version is well-told, and the movie is worth seeing, too. (Note: An appreciation for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Tupac Shakur are beneficial but not necessary.)
“Brave doesn't mean you're not scared. It means you go on even though you're scared.”
“Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.”
“That's the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What's the point of having a voice if you're gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn't be?”
“People make mistakes, and you have to decide if their mistakes are bigger than your love for them.”
2. White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, is a non-fiction book explaining racism in America. The author is a white woman who works as a professional cultural awareness educator, meaning she provides in-depth trainings to companies and other adult groups to help people become more aware of both subtle and obvious forms of racism. In this book, she points out that it is possible for us to do or say racist things without intending to (meaning that people with good morals can still perpetuate racism without realizing it). She also notes that many conversations about race (that could have been helpful) quickly get caught up in everyone trying to prove to others that they are not racist themselves.
“I am a white American raised in the United States. I have a white frame of reference and a white worldview, and I move through the world with a white experience. My experience is not a universal human experience. It is a particularly white experience in a society in which race matters profoundly; a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race. However, like most white people raised in the US, I was not taught to see myself in racial terms and certainly not to draw attention to my race or to behave as if it mattered in any way. Of course, I was made aware that somebody’s race mattered, and if race was discussed, it would be theirs, not mine.”
“When we try to talk openly and honestly about race, white fragility quickly emerges as we are so often met with silence, defensiveness, argumentation, certitude, and other forms of pushback.”
“Our simplistic definition of racism—as intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals—engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem.”
“For many white people, the mere title of this book will cause resistance…. Right now you may be thinking of all the ways that you are different from other white people and that if I just knew how you had come to this country, or were close to these people, grew up in this neighborhood, endured this struggle, or had this experience, then I would know that you were different—that you were not racist. I’ve witnessed this common reflex countless times in my work.”
“Let me be clear: If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike of people because of race, then I agree that it is offensive for me to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you. I also agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral.”
“Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don't have them. We do have them, and people of color already know we have them; our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing. An honest accounting of these patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary.”
“If you are white and have ever been challenged to look at your own racism—perhaps you told a problematic joke or made a prejudiced assumption and someone brought it to your attention—it is common to feel defensive. If you believe that you are being told you are a bad person, all your energy is likely to go toward denying this possibility and invalidating the messenger rather than trying to understand why what you’ve said or done is hurtful. You will probably respond with white fragility. But unfortunately, white fragility can only protect the problematic behavior you feel so defensive about; it does not demonstrate that you are an open person who has no problematic racial behavior.”
“When I talk to white people about racism, I hear the same claims—rooted in the good/bad binary—made again and again. I organize these claims into two overall categories, both of which label the person as good and therefore not racist. The first set claims color blindness: ‘I don’t see color [and/or race has no meaning to me]; therefore, I am free of racism.’ The second set claims to value diversity: ‘I know people of color [and/or have been near people of color, and/or have general fond regard for people of color]; therefore, I am free of racism.’”
3. So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo, deserves a more interesting title, in my opinion. It is another wonderful non-fiction book that easily kept my attention and helped me learn more ways to be aware of racism and its effect in American culture. The author also talks in detail about the historical roots of police treatment toward people of color.
“These last few years, the rise of voices of color, coupled with the widespread dissemination of video proof of brutality and injustice against people of color, has brought the urgency or racism in America to the forefront of all our consciousness. Race is not something people can choose to ignore anymore.”
“These are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers told them it was. These are very scary times for those who are just now realizing how justifiably hurt, angry, and terrified so many people of color have been all along. These are very stressful times for people of color who have been fighting and yelling and trying to protect themselves from the world that doesn't care, to suddenly be asked by those who ignored them for so long, ‘What has been happening in your entire life? Can you educate me?’"
“For many white people, this book may bring you face-to-face with issues of race and privilege that will make you uncomfortable. For many people of color, this book may bring forward some of the trauma of experiences around race that you've experienced. But a centuries-old system of oppression and brutality is not an easy fix, and maybe we shouldn't be looking for easy reads. I hope that if parts of this book make you uncomfortable, you can sit with that discomfort for a while, to see if it has anything else to offer you.”
“No matter what, when you are having a conversation about racial oppression, you will not be the only one who is nervous and you will not be the only one taking a risk.”
“Studies have shown that if you have a ‘black-sounding’ name, you are four times less likely to be called for a job interview.”
“Our police forces were born from Night Patrols, who had the principal task of controlling black and Native American populations in New England, and Slave Patrols, who had the principal task of catching escaped black slaves and sending them back to slave masters. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, catching and re-enslaving black people became the job of Night Patrols as well, and that job was continued on after the Night Patrols were turned into the country's first police forces. Our early American police forces existed not only to combat crime, but also to return black Americans to slavery and control and intimidate free black populations. Police were rightfully feared and loathed by black Americans in the North and South. In the brutal and bloody horror of the post-Reconstruction South, local police sometimes joined in on the terrorizing of black communities that left thousands of black Americans dead. In the South, through the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, it was well known locally that many police officers were also members of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“Our police force was not created to serve black Americans; it was created to police black Americans and serve white Americans. This is why even when police were donning white hoods and riding out at night to burn crosses on the lawns of black families, white families could still look at them with respect and trust.”
“This is not to say that the majority of our police officers are racist, hateful monsters. When looking at anti-black bias in police actions, we are looking at the product of police cultural history that has always viewed black Americans as adversaries, and of a popular culture that has always portrayed black Americans as violent criminals not worthy of protection…. This belief that black people and people of color are more dangerous, unpredictable, and violent is not something that I believe most police officers (and other Americans) even know they believe. But they do believe it deep down. This implicit bias against people of color is so insidious that not even people of color are exempt from having it, which is why, yes, even police officers of color can show bias against civilians of color. Implicit bias is the beliefs that sit in the back of your brain and inform your actions without your explicit knowledge. In times of stress, these unexamined beliefs can prove deadly.”
“The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched (while shown to be less likely than whites to turn up contraband in these searches), and more likely to be ticketed and arrested in those stops. This increase in stops, searches, and arrests also leads to a 3.5-4 times higher probability that black people will be killed by cops (this increase is the same for Native Americans interacting with police, a shamefully underreported statistic).”
“Those who demand the smoking gun of a racial slur or swastika or burning cross before they will believe that an individual encounter with the police might be about race are ignoring what we know and what the numbers are bearing out: something is going on and it is not right. We are being targeted. And you can try to explain away one statistic due to geography, one away due to income—you can find reasons for numbers all day. But the fact remains: all across the country, in every type of neighborhood, people of color are being disproportionately criminalized. This is not all in our heads.”
“In this individualist nation we like to believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist. We like to believe that if there are racist cops, they are individual bad eggs acting on their own. And with this belief, we are forced to prove that each individual encounter with the police is definitively racist or it is tossed out completely as mere coincidence.”
“So, acknowledging us, believing us, means challenging everything you believe about race in this country. And I know that is a very big ask, I know that this is a painful and scary process.”
You may have noticed that this last author mentions that people can have beliefs that they are not even aware of. If you’d like to learn more about yourself and unrecognized biases you might have, follow this link to Project Implicit, where you may choose from a list of free online tests that can help determine some of the biases you may unknowingly have. It’s truly an interesting and eye-opening experience.
Again, I do not claim to be an expert on the topic of race. All I can say for sure is that these books have helped me understand significantly more about racial bias and racism than I was aware of before. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me.