Hey, there! I saw you in the mirror today, staring back at me with those wide, blue eyes. Innocent expression on your pale, pink face. “Who, me?” your look seemed to say.
As you know, I had just been playing a game of Spot the Racist. Stuck in late afternoon Portland traffic, I had been troubled by seeing three separate cars drive by with (US)American flags flying out their windows. It scared me. Now, normally, I wouldn’t equate American patriotism with racism, but I couldn’t help reading those flags that way today. They didn’t have swastikas on them or anything, but just days after the president of the United States compared Robert E. Lee to George Washington and defended a mob of white nationalists and neo-nazis, choosing to display that flag is, at least, suspicious. And that this appeared to be a pattern made me uneasy.
So I decided they were probably racist, and I started looking around into all the cars. Who else here is racist? I thought. Could I tell by looking at them? Let’s see how many I can spot. I was looking around, driving down the freeway at a snail’s pace, sizing up the other drivers for signs of racism. I leaned over to adjust an AC vent, and my eyes caught the rear view mirror. And I did a double take, because there you were. Blue eyes. Pale pink. Who, me?
That’s not what a racist looks like… is it?
Now, I’ve thought about it, and I’m afraid you’re not going to like this. I know you don’t like to think of yourself as racist. You think everyone is the same on the inside. You support affirmative action, prison reform and immigrants’ rights. You’re committed to politically correct language, inclusion, intersectionality. You didn’t vote for that evil clown in the white house. Surely, you’re one of the good guys, right?
But you seeing yourself as some benevolent ally just because you don’t personally want to kill black people is not doing anything to dismantle white supremacy in this country. Here’s how I could tell that you’re racist: You’re white. You’re a white (US)American.
(And now, let’s pause for a second while the words “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE…” echo across the internet. I’ll wait.)
See, racism is not a feeling you have in the privacy of your own mind. You can, and probably do, have racist thoughts and feelings. But racism is bigger than you, bigger than any of us. It’s a whole system of oppression, a hateful web that’s tangled all over our culture and our country. A self-perpetuating system that runs like clockwork. And it’s a system that benefits you.
To say that a white person in our culture is not racist is like saying that someone who does not personally kill animals is a vegetarian. Many people who eat hamburgers have never (and would never) kill a cow with their own hands. They let other people do that for them. But they still eat the burgers. They still enjoy energy and comfort and flavor and sustenance that is a direct result of a cow getting killed. Just not by them.
In our culture, bubbling with subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism in every corner, white people enjoy relative safety, power, health, wealth and freedom, at the expense of people of color. Whether they believe in the system or not, they thrive on it. There are white people who really do everything in their power not to participate in that system. Just like there are actual vegetarians. And I would say those white people are not racist. But there are very, very few of them.
And, my friend in the mirror, I don’t think you cut it. I know it hurts to hear that, but you’ve got a lot of work to do. To you, and all your well-meaning white friends, it’s not that you’re bad people. You grew up being fed burgers and thinking of yourself as an animal lover ’cause you walked the family dog. Change is hard. So don’t beat yourself up. Just remember where your dinner came from. And then get to work.
Afterthought: I don’t actually think it’s particularly helpful (if at all helpful) to call people “racist.” Racism is a system in our country that needs to be destroyed, but name-calling doesn’t do that anyway and tends to divide people. I’m standing by this post though, because if there’s one person we (white people) could each stand to consider calling “racist”, it’s the one in the mirror.