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“Racist!” The Politics of Labeling

‘Racist’ is a word getting liberal play these days, as in, “Anyone who voted for Donald Trump must be a racist.” The accusation rarely gets more specific, as if needing no explanation, shorthand for being bad, sick, flawed, mean and hateful, stained by the nation’s founding sin and original shame. One of those. No wonder people get upset.

I am not among the accusers, mostly because I think trying to sort people into racist or not is a bad idea, in no small part because it assumes there is such a thing as a ‘racist person,’ that human beings can really be that simple, not to mention the sixty-two million who voted for Donald Trump.

Calling people racist is also a bad idea because it draws attention away from the racist consequences of what all kinds of people do, and it polarizes us into hostile camps of accusers and accused, encouraging smug self-satisfaction at the moment of pointing the finger, especially among whites, with the implicit, self-congratulating assurance of being good and pure and thereby off the hook.

And when it comes to how people vote, there is the problem of kidding ourselves that we can tell from that what they think and feel, not to mention who and what they are.

What, for example, can you tell from the fact that I voted for Hillary Clinton? Does it mean that I, like the candidate I voted for, have a fondness for financiers and wealth and the capitalist system that makes them possible? Do I identify with billionaires pouring millions into the Clinton campaign? Am I secretive with a somewhat dodgy relation to the truth? Do I embrace the arrogance of power and upper-class entitlement to decide for others how life will be? Do I appear to be progressive—in favor of raising the minimum wage, for example—but can be counted on to support the capitalist system that makes that wage such a desperate issue for so many?

I am none of that, and yet she got my vote.

A vote is not a window to the soul. Yes, there were Trump voters who cheered his racist, sexist views, but there were many others who gave their vote in spite of that, including, I imagine, some of the one-out-of-four who told exit interviewers they had just voted for a man they believed unfit. Just as many Clinton voters cast their ballot while holding their nose.

These are the millions of reluctant, conflicted voters who said they weren’t voting for the parts they didn’t like or couldn’t stomach, but for this other reason or that. It isn’t what he says, but how he says it, the way he speaks his mind, regardless of what’s in it at the moment. Or what he promises to do about the economy. Or his ideology, not his personality. Or that he simply isn’t her. But grabbing women’s genitals or banning a whole religion? No, we didn’t vote for that.

But we can no more vote for part of a candidate than we can vote for one hand but not the other. And the problem is our connection to that other hand.

In other words, no matter what we tell ourselves about why we voted as we did, the outcome is the same. To vote for a candidate is to consent to their election, the parts we like and the parts we don’t, because it is the whole human being who receives our vote and occupies the office and has access to its power. Hold your nose or give a cheer, it makes no difference. Consent is consent, and it has consequences.

Insofar as electing Donald Trump has the effect of legitimating and empowering someone who espouses racist views and supports white privilege and supremacy, then a vote for Trump is an act with racist consequences regardless of what the voter may believe or want.

Yes, the vote is not only that, but includes it, because we cannot wall off our behavior and our reasons for it from the result. Voting for Trump while disapproving of his misogynist and racist displays does not remove responsibility for helping to elect a man who holds those views and might reasonably be expected to act on them and empower others who will.

The same, of course, can be said about my vote for Clinton, by which I consented to all kinds of things I don’t believe in, beginning with the election of yet another liberal caretaker of the status quo. A president who can be counted on to protect capitalism and the elites whose interests have driven the oppression of people of color—not to mention white working people—for hundreds of years. A commander in chief prepared to use violence to protect ‘American interests’ that put corporations and the ruling class above everyone else. Another liberal who will not confront the reality of mass incarceration and segregation and the deliberate impoverishment and degradation of neighborhoods and communities of color, including Native American reservations; or challenge the ideal of manhood that drives men’s violence; or the Western mantra of progress and growth that is driving millions of species, including our own, toward extinction. Who may care about such things more than the other side, but allows them to continue nonetheless.

None of these are my reasons for voting as I did. I voted in spite of them, as did millions of others. But the consequences are the same.

And so, here we are, walking contradictions, which is why we can be so quick to feel bad for ourselves, to be caught in such a trap. And we are caught, we have always been caught, we were born to it, and the sooner we see the reality of that, the better.

We live in a society in which racism, sexism, and class oppression have been institutionalized and normalized for hundreds of years. This is the status quo, and to perpetuate that is what politicians are supposed to do. And the rest of us are expected to vote for them, if only to affirm our belief in democracy, even if it means choosing the lesser of two evils.

Instead of looking for someone to blame, we need to pay attention to how we all acquiesce and consent to the way things are, all the while telling ourselves we are not responsible, not being one of those people who make bad things happen. Because we have met those people, and they are us.

Are Trump voters racist? I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s the wrong question. It’s one more invitation to indulge the American obsession with otherness, with shame and guilt, wickedness and sin, with punishment, penitence, and revenge. All of which changes nothing, as tens of millions of people continue to suffer the consequences of living in a society organized to promote inequality, privilege, and oppression.

What I do care about is understanding how we can withdraw consent in ways that matter more than complaining and calling people names. We have been trained to have no idea of this, which is why we need models of what is possible. Such as the action at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to stop the Dakota oil pipeline from crossing the Missouri River.

For months the resistance refused consent by occupying land the pipeline would cross to get to the river. They came together, prayed, counciled, organized, went to court, lobbied investors to divest, and, above all, with their bodies and their voices, they stood together and said no. No, you may not destroy the water or the land to which we belong. You may not profit from the destruction of people and the earth. You do not have the right to do whatever you want, whatever you have the money to pay for, whatever you can manipulate the law to allow and justify. What you are doing is wrong, and we do not consent, which you know because we are here.

One of things revealed at Standing Rock is what we have in common—that we are human beings, and citizens, and creatures of earth and water and air, without which none of us can survive. We are all in the same boat and always have been, the deplorables and the adorables, and we all have reason to feel vulnerable and afraid. And, in one way or another, we are complicit in our consent to the status quo.

But we will not discover that until we open our minds and hearts to the complexity of other people’s lives, until we stop judging them by standards we spare ourselves, and until we have compassion for the common struggle to live as full human beings in difficult times.

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For related posts, see

The Racism of Good White People
What Is a System of Privilege?
What Are We Afraid of?
National Disobedience Day

The Racism of Good White People

In the news a few days after I posted “Clueless in Columbia,” I came across another prominent white man speaking on the subject of race. “It isn’t possible to prevent racism,” he said, “because there is no law that says you can’t be an idiot.”

This was Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a national organization representing college and university presidents.

‘Idiot,’ of course, is shorthand for some lack of intelligence or self-restraint, by which Mr. Hartle would have us believe that racism is the province of the foolish and the stupid.

Being pretty sure I’m not that, you can imagine my relief.

Which lasted for the nanosecond it took to remind myself that the kind of racism he was talking about—the overtly mean and hurtful act—is not the only way of doing harm. In fact, it may not amount to much compared with all the rest.

Consider this: If the everyday norm for people of color was to be treated equally when it comes to jobs and income and housing and education and health care, the courts and police; to feel safe as a general condition of life; to be free to live in any neighborhood they could afford; to be seen and heard and accepted and taken as seriously as anyone else—I can imagine they’d find a way to deal with the occasional white idiot calling them names or scrawling racist graffiti on the wall.

Not to mention that in such a world, racist idiots would be far more likely to keep it to themselves. Now, there’s a thought.

In such a world. A world in which, obviously, we do not live now.

And that simple fact is what Mr. Hartle’s sweeping reference to idiots and racism would obscure.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if he were right, how much easier to put it off on some fringe group of maladjusted malcontents. It would be the kind of relief I expect was briefly felt by many white people celebrating the election of Barack Obama as the dawn of a post-racial era.

They were as wrong about that as Mr. Hartle is about idiots and race. And I suspect that white people who see themselves as intelligent and well-intentioned know that he is wrong. That the racial trouble we’ve been in for hundreds of years is far more than bad things done by people who are bad or stupid. Whatever you may think humanity has come to, there are not enough of them for that.

Which leaves the rest of us.

I’ve never met a white person, including the man looking back from my mirror this morning, who wants to consider themselves a source of racism. Especially given the strange but prevalent idea that we are what we do, a sort of one-drop rule by which a single racist act is all it takes to reveal ourselves as racist human beings—as in, this is the sum of who you are.

That being a heavy load to carry, we tell ourselves we are not one of them. We are good. And good people do not do bad things, because, well, then they wouldn’t be good.

This is where we get lost, I think. And where we try to hide. It is why we need to look more closely at what racism really is and how it works, so that we can see more clearly what it has to do with us. Including how dangerous a good person can be.

In a culture that sees the individual as the point of everything, it’s no surprise that racism is viewed as nothing more than what individuals feel and think—an attitude, a conscious tendency to discriminate and harm.

Some people, we think, have this condition, and some do not, which is why a student could go off to college and be surprised to encounter racism there, as if it were a disease believed to have been eradicated, or contained somewhere else. And why universities and corporations are so quick to respond to racist incidents by trying to innoculate students and workers with training and education and rules to prevent further outbreaks.

But that isn’t how it works, what keeps it going, what gives it power, which is why we’ve been stuck in this for so long.

White racism of course includes overt acts of hostility and bigotry. But, racism amounts to much more than that, because it takes much more to enforce and perpetuate a system of white privilege that has existed for more than 300 years, from unconscious bias to segregation and structures of political and economic power.*

White students who make a racist video or wear blackface on Halloween or draw swastikas on the wall are not simply behaving. They are also enacting a system of privilege that has a history, a culture, and institutions that do not originate with them, and whose authority is not their own.

If we think of racism in terms of its consequences instead of people’s motivations and intentions, the overt racist behavior that makes the news has much in common with acts of racism that do not.

There is the white employer, for example, who helps produce racial gaps in jobs, wealth, and income by being drawn to favor job applicants with Anglo-sounding names. Or the school teacher who uses racially-biased tests that over-identify students of color as learning-disabled. Or the police officer who suddenly feels threatened by the sight of a black man reaching into his pocket, or the physician or teacher or grocery clerk who attends more to whites than to people of color, or the white person who asks someone of color where are they from or who cannot tell one from another or feels afraid and calls the police about the black man jogging by the house.

None of this requires that we know what we are doing, that we act with conscious hostility or prejudice. The consequences do not depend on who we are, how good or bad, intelligent or not.

And those consequences are everywhere, not because bad people are everywhere, but because society is everywhere, the web of ideas and institutions into which our inner and outer lives are woven from the beginning.

It is this that gives the lone act of racism such weight, so that what is done to one can feel as though it is being done to many. And by many. Because it is.

And we can no more escape our connection to that, than we can stop breathing the air that is breathed by everyone else.

This is why white people so often intuitively recognize the racist act, and why it can make them so uncomfortable, so vulnerable to that moment of recognition when we know it is not possible to live in such a world without it being part of who we are. And what we do.

In other words, the racism of good white people.

There is, for example, our inertia on the subject of race, including our silence, which is racist because white privilege depends on it to continue.

But silence is just the beginning, there being so many ways to see and choose and value white lives over lives of color. And I do not need to search the news for an example.

For many years I taught courses on social inequality, seminars on gender, race, and class, small groups with lots of discussion.

One day, a black student approached me to say that she had noticed, repeatedly, that I would interrupt her in ways that I never did with whites. It made her feel invisible, dismissed, as if what she had to say didn’t matter.

Not recognizing myself in what she said, the path of least resistance for a white person in that situation was to deny and defend by telling her that of course I value her as much as anyone else, that I wouldn’t do such a thing, having spent my life, after all, working on issues of privilege and oppression, that she was being too sensitive, or even blaming her own lack of self-confidence on me. I might have given her advice about holding her own in a conversation, asserting herself more, perhaps.

I short, I would have made this about her and not me, by subordinating her experience to my own in refusing to see myself as I was seen, to honor another point of view. By dismissing anything I might do without conscious intent as if I had not done it at all. By presuming to know what I did not, about myself and her.

However gentle, however ‘reasonable’ my tone, however ‘good’ my intent, I would have put her in her place, so that I might stay comfortably in my own.

This is how racism happens.

This is how it works, day by day, loading the odds in favor of whites in the shaping of a life, everything from getting a job or buying a house or excelling in school to healthcare and feeling accepted and safe.

It is the kind of routine, mainstream, everyday racism that does not rely on being outwardly vicious or mean. But in the cumulative weight of its effect, in its power to perpetuate white privilege in all its depth and fine grinding, soul-killing detail, I’ll wager that it’s far worse than anything that makes the news.**

Which is why white people can be so quick to deflect and deny what they have done in those countless small moments, because we know, intuitively, as human beings, that the consequences are anything but small.

But, you may wonder, was she right? Did I actually interrupt her more than whites?

I suppose it would matter if she was putting me on trial, my ‘innocence’ as a ‘good white person’ at stake.

But she was not. As I listened to her, it was clear that she was not demanding that I humble myself in guilt and shame, admit to being one of those bad white people after all, ask forgiveness, make amends.

No, she was asking to be seen and heard, as one human being harmed by another, that I consider her experience of me to be as real as my own, that I consider the consequence, that I pay attention, that I take responsibility for my part in what happens between us. And she was taking a considerable risk to do it.

I told her I had no awareness of the behavior she was talking about, but that I had to assume she was not imagining or making it up, that I was sorry this had happened, it being the last thing I would want in my class. And that I would do whatever I could to attend and notice so that it would not happen again, which was, after all, what both of us wanted.

I was not on trial that day, in part because I had no innocence to lose, the ‘good white person’ being a fiction, a device to separate ourselves from the reality of race. Nor was I guilty of ‘being white,’ the fiction of white people born into an original sin for which we must spend our lives in guilt and shame.

In a way, what happened was not about me at all. Or about her. It was the monster in the room that she and I, in our own ways, were trying to see clearly, and come to terms with, both in the world and ourselves. And, in those moments, I believe we found a common ground on which to stand in that struggle, the ground of the human being.

Which is, really, all we’ve got.

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*I first encountered the sociological view of racism as anything that perpetuates white privilege in David T. Wellman’s book, Portraits of White Racism, Cambridge University Press, 1977. I refer here to ‘white’ privilege because that is the only form of race privilege in this society. For readers who doubt this, please see “What Is a System of Privilege?

**I first encountered this idea in the video, The Color of Fear (StirFry Seminars, 1994), as expressed by Victor Lewis.

Clueless in Columbia: The Unbearable Weight of White Inertia

As I follow the news about racism at the University of Missouri and the resignation of its president, I can’t help but notice how little attention is paid to the fact that yet another white man in a position of authority has shown himself to be clueless on the subject of race.

Instead, the story is of a seemingly well-intentioned man caught in the open with nowhere to hide, confronted by angry students aggressively challenging his understanding of race, and knowing before he opened his mouth that he was in over his head.

“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.”

Pretty much a white person’s nightmare come true. And I’ll bet plenty of white people, including college presidents, breathed a sigh of relief that it was him and not them.

However we feel about him and his predicament, the speed with which he has disappeared from the news underscores the view that he is not the real problem. Hapless, perhaps, or incompetent, or just unlucky, but nothing like whites who would call out ‘nigger’ or use human feces to draw a swastika on a wall. Those people are the problem, we are told, racists who still block the way to justice and equity 150 years after the Civil War.

But they are not. There are not enough of them. They are not powerful enough to account for the stunning and persistent racial disparities in income, wealth, political power, jobs, healthcare, schools, housing, not to mention mass incarceration, police violence, and segregation.

No, the reason for our continuing national failure is the great multitude of white people, who are, on the subject of race, not only clueless, but invisible, silent, and inert.

Many pride themselves on good intentions, sincerity, a desire to be good and do no harm. They are aware of no prejudice in themselves, some claiming to see no color at all, as if that were a virtue. When something terrible happens—the murder of black people at prayer, for example—they may feel anguish, even outrage. But it doesn’t last, as the media lose interest and white people resume their lives, like drivers going on down the road after rubbernecking the scene of a crash.

This is what white inertia looks and sounds like, white people moving through time and space with what Martin Luther King described as the “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” that he believed to be the most dangerous thing in the world.

I often hear from colleges and universities wanting to ‘start’ a conversation about race, and I wonder how it is in 2015 that places of higher learning are still just starting out, not to mention hiring presidents who are clueless about race. Until I realize they’ve been here before, many times, perhaps, but cannot sustain what they begin, cannot turn it into more than a conversation or a campus event or yet another plan to do something about it, somehow, someday.

And the reason is not a reluctance to engage by people of color—most of whom cannot escape the subject of race—but white people, men in particular, most of whom do not show up in the first place, and those who do, don’t stick around very long.

There are times when white people openly commit themselves to racial justice in ways that might be noticed. There were the abolitionists, for example, and, more than a hundred years later, the freedom riders.* Otherwise, it’s hard to see where most ‘good’ white people—the ones not consciously engaged in oppressing people of color—have done more than watch, anchoring the status quo with the weight of their consent.

White inertia is a complicated thing, a mass of many layers, its outer edge wrapped in ignorance, unable to act on what isn’t known.

Just below is the refuge of heaping blame on bad individuals who act in overtly racist ways, providing the reassuring comfort of not being one of those, and therefore not the problem.

Deeper down, propping up ignorance and blame, is the investment in being seen as the kind of people for whom race does not figure in the treatment of human beings. It comes with the assumption that people actually know what they believe and feel, what we are predisposed to do in the blink of an eye that it takes to form an impression. But the study of implicit bias and the science of the brain make it clear that we do not, that we have no idea, because our awareness is but a tiny window on the unconscious brain that controls most of our lives, shaped by a lifetime of experience in a society that is anything but neutral or kind or just on the subject of race.

But I didn’t mean it, I hear again and again. It wasn’t my intention. Good for you, I want to say, but it doesn’t change the consequence.

And then, going deeper toward the core of white inertia, is the dull, leaden feeling of being overwhelmed—it is too much, too big.

I have watched them sink in the direction of despair, nibbling around the edges of guilt and shame.

And the fear of what stands to be lost—innocence, the wages of privilege, who we think we are, identity, goodness, worth, America, American.

And then comes the last line of defense, when all else fails, digging in, dropping all pretense, to let loose the anger at how awful, how unfair it is to be made to feel this way, the white man in Oklahoma accosting me mid-way in the workshop, “You’re just trying to make us feel bad,” as if I would travel more than a thousand miles for that.

And, besides, where is it written that white people should not feel bad about this country’s continuing legacy of race? Are people of color to be the only ones, to carry it alone? And just what did they do to deserve that?

But such questions are buried beneath the full weight of white inertia—nothing to offer, nothing to give that might actually disturb or make a difference, resentful, fending off guilt, sick and tired, leave us alone.

It isn’t pretty, and of course white people are not all the same. But that isn’t the point. It is the pattern that is all too familiar to anyone who pays attention. A pattern that comes as no surprise, so predictable, for why would we imagine that hundreds of years of race privilege and oppression would bring out the best?

 

Having worked on these issues for most of my life, I believe we have two choices: We will stay stuck in this until forced to move by events or circumstance, lurching from one crisis to the next. Or we will find a way to do what our ancestors did not—to take responsibility now, as we are called to do as citizens and human beings, as if our lives and much more depend upon it.

Of course that’s easier said than done, and I have been around enough white people struggling with this to have some idea of what comes up and what is needed.

What can I do? Start where you are. Make it your business to find out what you do not know. Read, listen. Learn what racism does to people of color, has done for hundreds of years. About whiteness, where it came from and why, and what it has to do with you. Of course we’re involved. Of course we’re biased. Of course our silence is consent. Of course we’ve benefitted one way or another from generations of racism. We are all human beings born and raised in a world we did not create or choose, that shapes our lives inside and out.

Of course this is hard.

Now I feel guilty. To which I will say there are few things more useless than white people preoccupied with feeling bad about themselves. This is not about you.

And helpless. Because you are, if you think you’re supposed to change the world. But you are not. You are here to make a difference, which you may never get to see.

But I’m just one person. Who isn’t? Each of us is a leaf on a tree, and the tree may not need any one of us in particular, but it doesn’t live without us. As Gandhi said, what we do as individuals doesn’t matter, but it matters that we do it.

I matter and I don’t. Exactly. It’s a paradox. Best get used to those.

I still feel overwhelmed. Then imagine you’re a parent and your child’s life is in danger and you don’t know what to do and it scares the hell out of you. What do you do now? Sit there and be overwhelmed while your kid dies? I don’t think so. Breathe. Open your eyes.

But I’m afraid. With good reason. But pretending that you’re not, and not preparing for it, is one of the biggest reasons good intentions come to nothing. Make a list of all the ways you can get hurt doing this, and then a list of what you need to take care of yourself. “Don’t do this alone” goes at the top. There’s a reason social movements depend on numbers of people, including that loneliness and isolation are invitations to powerlessness and despair. Join a group. Start a group. Make a friend into an ally. Find a we you can believe in and be part of it.

All right. I educate myself, join a group. What then? Just look around. You’ll know. It will be obvious, if not painfully so.

That’s the simple answer, the one I always hope will be enough.

But I notice you asked this question before, which makes me wonder where it’s coming from, if this isn’t a bit of sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. I suspect you already know the answer to your question. You just don’t like it very much. You’re holding out for a quick fix, a way to make this go away so you can stop feeling so bad, so you can avoid having to nail yourself to the present.** A way to think you’ve done your bit and now it’s up to someone else.

You already know what people do to make change happen. You’ve seen it in history books and the movies and on the news. They come together and commit themselves to one another and what needs to be done. They study the situation, identify the goal, analyze and strategize, assess the risks, and then organize to agitate for change. And they keep on doing that until the day when power yields. Just as those brave students in Missouri must now prepare for the long haul as white inertia reasserts its weight.

That’s what it takes, and always has.

And, in case you’re wondering, you don’t have to make this your life. But it does have to be part of your life.

Which means the real question, the one that counts, the only question, really, is not what can you do, but what are you prepared to do?

What do you have the knowledge to do, the courage, the allies, the resources, the will? How far are you willing to go, in the world and inside yourself?

And, if you don’t know that, do you care enough to find out?

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*I omit the Civil War because Northern whites were not fighting to free black people from slavery.

**The idea of nailing yourself to the present has been attributed to Pema Chodron, author of, among others, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambala, 2000).

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