What is racism?

I highly recommend 30 reflections on Race and Privilege. It’s a series of 30 short emails (sign up and read previous emails here) that are a great kind of racism 101, aimed primarily at white people.

In the second email Mariah recommends the first four minutes of this video. It’s Robin D’Angelo, the author of the book White Fragility (the one people keep recommending).

I’m not going to read the book because I understand the concept, but I want to write about it because keep running into people who do not understand the concept and also probably won’t read the book.

“If you’re a white person in America, you’re a racist, pure and simple, and without a lifetime of conscious effort you always will be.” 
— Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility 

Triggered? Read on.

About a week ago CNN reported that Black woman named Kennedy Mitchum asked Merriam-Webster to update its definition of racism and they’ve agreed to make the change.

Currently, Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Similarly, in the video Robin DiAngelo cites a kind of “classic” definition of a racist. “A racist is an individual (always an individual, not a system) who consciously does not like people based on race (must be conscious), and who intentionally seeks to be mean to them. Individual, conscious, intent.”

This is what I like to call the “white people” definition of racism. Because when I read Black people on racism, this generally isn’t how they use the word. Instead, they use racism to describe a default system that benefits whites at the expense of non-whites.

When a teacher metes out a harsher punishment to a Black boy for the same infraction as a white boy, the teacher isn’t usually doing so because they believe that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Nor are they generally an individual who consciously does not like people based on race, and who intentionally seeks to be mean to them. Same for a judge who sentences Black defendants to more jail time for the same crimes. There’s usually nothing conscious or intentional about it. They are simply operating according to their training. They learned from a young age that Black people are worse-behaved than white people and therefore deserve harsher punishments.

Racism doesn’t require intent or conscious choice. All it requires is unquestioning acceptance of the biases we all inherit from our culture. We’re taught lies about Black people from a young age. Half of white medical trainees believe Black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people. This leads doctors to under-treat Black pain. It’s not because they hate Black people. It’s because they don’t know any better.

“White fragility” describes the way white people react to the idea that they might have done or said something racist. White people don’t understand that racism is systemic and generally unconscious and unintentional. They think it’s necessarily individual, conscious, and intentional. And because they don’t understand what racism is, they see any accusation of racism as an accusation that they’re a bad person.

This misunderstanding represents a huge impediment to racial reconciliation. As long as we spend our energy dividing people into “racist” and “not racist” we leave systemic, unconscious, unintentional racism untouched. Which is especially unfortunate as that represents the bulk of racism. For every one intentional, individual, intentional racist (and they certainly exist) there are a thousand people who are trying to do their best but don’t yet understand how some of their behavior exacerbates racial inequality. And they’ll never learn as long as any time someone suggests that perhaps that could be the case they freak out and exclaim, “But I’m not a racist!”

The first Black child to go to a white school is in her 60s. Her parents had to pack her lunch because they were afraid white parents would poison her. White parents held a coffin with a Black baby in it to protest her attending school. To pretend as if growing up in a society in which that was normal has had no impact on us today is absolutely insane. Yes, we have made progress. Yes, most people are less overtly racist than they were 50 years ago. But we are not there yet. We still have racism. Which means, necessarily, that we still have racists.

It’s not a moral failing to be racist in a racist society. It’s not a moral failing to believe what your parents, grandparents, teachers, and newscasters have told you your whole life about Black people. Being a racist in a racist society doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s the most obvious, natural, normal thing in the world. I’m a racist. You’re a racist. We’re all racists until we wake up and realize we’d rather not be racists. That’s the day we become anti-racists.

Racism is default. It’s the air we breathe. The water we drink. It’s the newscaster choosing the mugshot for the Black defendant and the flattering photo for the white defendant. It’s the cops buying Dylann Roof Burger King after he shot nine Black churchgoers during a prayer meeting and shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice for holding a toy gun. No one grows up immune to this kind of messaging, this kind of programming. No one grows up not racist in America. The best we can hope for is to actively choose to disavow our programming. The best we can hope for isn’t not-racism. It’s anti-racism.

My hope is that at some point we can be more offended by racism itself than we are by being called a racist. The white people definition of racism is divisive. It categorizes people into “us: non-racists” vs “them: racists.” The better definition of racism unites everyone who isn’t actively, purposefully racist against racism itself. And I think that’s a better way to be.

One Comment

  1. Wondy

    cathyreisenwitz, this is an inspired piece. I’m sitting with your perspective and finding myself in it, making it definitely worthy of a re-read and re-peat. Good work. Thank you.
    Signed, a Black woman.

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