Tag Archives: privilege

To The Racist in the Mirror

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.



About the Racially Enlightened Kids

Unpopular opinion time!

You know how it’s only adults who are racist, and how when you hear a kid say something racist, it’s because they’ve heard an adult say it?

Yeah, that’s made up.  Kids are totally racist.  Sorry.

While yes, racism is socially conditioned, kids in our culture are thoroughly programmed for it at a very early age.  It doesn’t take long for kids to learn who’s considered “good” and “beautiful” in their world.  And the prejudices that contribute to racism occur even earlier, possibly immediately.  (Did you know, for example, that our physical brains have different empathetic responses to seeing people hurt, depending on their race?)

Example of the popular opinion.


Kids are prejudiced, because like all of us, their little brains are operating on dozens and dozens of documented cognitive and emotional biases.  For example, it’s natural to prefer people you see as being similar to you in some way over people who aren’t, because of something called “in group bias.”  That’s not some people, that’s all people, unless we put that bias in check.  Kids don’t yet know to put their biases in check.  Add to that the fact that they’re constantly exposed to a culture that affirms the superiority of one race over others, and what you’ve got are some racist little kids.

The ones we like to post about on social media who seem to be free from racism are the exception, not the rule.  That’s why we notice them and share those images and videos.  They’re exceptional.

Okay, okay, you’re thinking.  So maybe it’s not true that kids aren’t racist, but it’s still a sweet thought!  What’s the harm in saying it?

Here’s one problem:  When we say that it’s children who are the least racist among us, that makes racism something you can grow out of.  It makes the absence of racism in a person seem cute, naive, involuntary.  Yes, we romanticize childhood, telling the story as if children are so wise and enlightened.  But in reality, try and think of any other topic that you honestly wish you had a child’s understanding of.  I’ll give you a minute.

Kids in our culture don’t transcend racism by some natural, God given reflex.  Adults (some but not many adults) in our culture transcend racism through self-reflection, by working honestly with their prejudices and by standing up to the racist conditioning they grew up with.  By choice.


Really, racism is a perfectly childish trait in a person.  It’s an immature, uneducated, unenlightened response to their natural prejudices and to living in a world where they are granted privilege over the people who trigger those prejudices.  Racism is something you grow out of (with work, if you’re conscious about it), not something you grow into.  Like temper tantrums and bed wetting and thinking your parents are magic, racism is a thing we should all aspire to move past as we grow up.

And here’s another problem with the trope of the racism-proof child:  If we believe that children are immune to racism unless we actively teach them to be racist, we think our job is done.  We think we can raise non-racist children just by censoring the N word and smiling and waving at our neighbors of color.  But that’s not happening, because racism is so embedded in every aspect of our culture and so eagerly received by our basal prejudices, we can’t just not be racist.  Not without work.  It takes honesty and struggle and bravery and humility.  Redemption’s not free.  And the work doesn’t stop, because we’re continuously re-conditioned to it our whole lives.

We must look at our children with open eyes, with compassion and clarity.  We have to meet them where they are, and meet ourselves where we are, and then we can begin to heal and grow and unlearn all that bullshit.  There’s too much work to do to go around pretending it will do itself.


Thoughts on Privilege and Foxholes

Today I saw this wonderful cartoon about how (and why) we should occupy positions of privilege responsibly and thoughtfully.  I welcome reminders of this kind, knowing that privilege is elusive and often invisible to those who have it, knowing that it is my duty to put in any effort required in checking my privilege.  I try to be conscious.  I try to be responsible.  I think I do okay.

Though I surely fall short of my ideals at times, it is at least my intention to be mindful and aware of my privilege.  It is at least my practice to use my privilege only when it will help level the playing field.  It as at least my policy to reject opportunities to abuse my privilege.


But a little voice in the back of my head this morning whispered of atheists in foxholes.  Of course, we’re not really talking about atheism or theism here, though religious beliefs – or lack there of – do dictate certain positions of relative privilege in our culture.  (Ask any atheist who’s run for political office.)  And for the record, I don’t agree with the claim that metaphor is usually attempting to illustrate.  Atheism is not simply a failure to recognize one’s own mortality.  But I suppose there could be individual cases (and probably have been) where the viewpoint of atheism was challenged by the tight spot of impending death.  And I can’t help but wonder if my viewpoint on privilege, and my self-image as someone who rejects the abuse of privilege, could be tested and come up short in certain desperate circumstances.

On January 26th, 2001, I was in India when a devastating earthquake hit the western district of Gujarat.  The death toll reached 20,000, and another 600,000 people were left homeless.  I was safely on the other side of the country in Calcutta, now “Kolkata”, in West Bengal (the little orange place labeled “WB” on the map.)  Gujarat is the red one labeled “GJ.”

India Map

So I wasn’t personally affected by the disaster and did not witness the aftermath firsthand.  But a lot of our volunteers, upon hearing of the earthquake, packed up and headed west to see how they could help.  I stayed where I was, doing volunteer work at a home for malnourished and afflicted children.  After some weeks passed, the volunteers started returning from Gujarat, and their reports of what they’d seen trickled in over the next couple months.

Gujarat Quake

The most striking news they brought back was about how the foreign aid was being handled.  Donations had, of course, flooded in from all over the world, but the distribution of these resources still had to happen within the context of the local culture.  And the local culture in India at that time was (and is) still influenced by the caste system.


It’s harder to find a better example of systematic privilege than India’s caste system.  It’s officially illegal, and many measures have been taken to undo this system and reverse associated damage.  But even today, this ancient and deeply-ingrained worldview influences many aspects of Indian culture.

After the quake hit Gujarat in 2001, the reports back to us from returning volunteers overwhelmingly included stories of foreign aid being distributed according to caste, with priority given to those of higher status.  This was disturbing for a lot of people who went to try and help.  From a western perspective, the caste system sounds pretty messed up.  But the western world is not without its parallels, nor are we free from oppression, discrimination or assigning privilege based on some pretty arbitrary stuff.  It could even be argued that most of those volunteers, the majority of them Catholic missionaries, were operating from a strong position of relative privilege, and in some ways, abusing that privilege.


(For the record, I don’t know how widespread the use of the caste system in determining who got foreign aid was in Gujarat.  I only know what I heard from our returning volunteers.  It’s possible that these were isolated incidents.  But I believe they were true accounts and am not surprised by them, based on my own experiences in India.)

So back to the whisper in the back of my head.  What if I were a mother of high caste order in Gujarat when that earthquake hit?  What if flexing my privilege were the only way I keep my children from starving to death?  Would I do it?  Would you?

Disaster Relief

I like to think I wouldn’t.  But that view of myself is, in itself, a luxury.  I haven’t been in such a desperate situation.  But I could be.  If a massive natural disaster hit home, and I found myself struggling to protect and feed my family, could I stick to my ideals?  Would I refuse to take help afforded to me by some position of privilege I occupy?  Or would I take that opportunity to abuse my privilege out of desperation?  I wish I could say for sure.

Waiting for Relief