One thing society has done effectively, up to this point, is to demonize racism. People in polite society know that spitting at black people, calling us names, openly denying us entry to places and other overt signifiers are racist behaviors. We know that racism is bad, and therefore it must follow that being a racist must make you a Bad Person. But can someone be a “good person,” and still be racist?
Overt racists make categorization easy. I know where I stand with them, and as long as I’m not being physically threatened, I can spot them easily and dismiss them. They cannot help but make themselves obvious.
But there’s a messier aspect to this. We have pushed racism underground so effectively that much of the time, people hold beliefs that they think are not associated with race at all. I’m talking about covert racism, the kind so hidden that it has people walking around like ghosts who don’t know they’re dead. And in this post-segregation, post Civil Rights, post Rodney King era, being around these unaware racists really messes with your mind.
When the Trump candidacy began to pick up steam, my frustration and anger at the vitriol he incites caused me to hear in my head the voices from all over the spectrum of racial awareness. I’d just made a major career change, so I was still processing that along with a natural uncertainty about the future, and initially I blamed this for the nightmares I was having.
But dealing with racism had been a big part of my life up to that point, and the way it stood out was not only in classic-style overt racism, but in microaggressions. Leftover was the trauma of being unable to advocate for myself (beautifully described here) or respond to those who said such things for fear of putting my own position in jeopardy.
There were little slights and big slights, too many to count. The jobs where I was hired by phone, then showed up in person and was met with a deep breath and a long silence. The ladies in the lunchroom who kept asking me if I’d watched the latest Oprah. The professor who handed out papers to the class but routinely forgot me: “I didn’t see you there,” she always said. (She probably didn’t.) People who grabbed my hair to give me “compliments.” The endless complaints about the Spanish bilingual program from those who’d forgotten I was a bilingual teacher. The whispers I heard about Obama. The louder comments I heard about Obama. The diversity meetings hijacked by coworkers who said they would gladly work with black people as long as they were qualified. The people who told me I was “articulate.” The coworkers who didn’t recognize me outside the office.
Each of those things reflects very common patterns of absorbed racism, although they can seem truly innocuous out of of context.
I’ve written a little about my experiences with racism as a teacher and the literal choice between keeping it real or keeping my job. But the comments I overheard and beliefs that were expressed often came from people I worked or studied with, who considered me someone they liked. They worked hard, they were dedicated to their jobs, they loved their families. Several of them would have welcomed me into their homes. And if you asked them, they would have said they would work with anyone of any race, could teach any student of any race fairly, that they abhorred racism and pulled out their MLK lesson plans every January. I knew these people too well to categorize them as “bad.” In fact, they were good people.
What this meant for me is that I was constantly dancing in between these lines. Every so often, I’d get a professor or coworker who was overtly racist (“Brown people are bad!” etc.) and found over and over again that while their comments were annoying and even painful to hear, they were easier to deal with — I could categorize them. It was the others whose voices kept me up at night, whose interactions gave me headaches and high blood pressure and just plain stressed me out. The ones who were nice to me, the ones issuing my paychecks. There aren’t enough words to describe the mindf*ck of being surrounded by people who are “normal” and “good” but who also, deep down in a place they can’t even find, do not consider me to be as much of a human being as they are.
If someone is even remotely accused of being racist, their impulse is to be revolted, to feel guilty, to shame the accuser, to pervert the facts. Other white people quickly distance themselves from the accused, shame them, fire them, wash their hands of them and say “Things are fine now” and shut down the conversation.
“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them… It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.”1
If you grew up knowing nothing other than “racism is bad, don’t be a racist,” you are probably lacking any sort of framework with which to talk about race with any nuance. You believe people are equal, without realizing that what you really believe is the status quo (where “people” = “white people”). You have absorbed it. This can be true even if you grew up in a “multicultural” environment. It is true even if you grew up poor. So when you interact with a black person, you have assumptions and biases that you don’t even know are there. In fact, what you are experiencing is a different version of reality.
If we un-demonize racism just a little bit, maybe we could talk about it. And then we could talk about coded racism, covert racism, institutionalized racism, white privilege. Maybe people wouldn’t panic when they hear the word “black.” And we could overturn the myth that racism is learned. (It isn’t — it’s absorbed.) People like the ones I worked & lived with for so many years would be better able to ask questions and hear the answers without shutting down.
And people like me… well, people like me wouldn’t have to keep wondering what we’ll say or not say the next time someone we have to work with or maintain ties with says something to demean us. We could breathe a little easier. We could be a little more free.
Edited to add: This essay from the Huffington Post, published the same time as this blog entry, describes what it’s like to realize you have absorbed racism as a white person. He says, “Black people aren’t asking for an apology, they are asking for an acknowledgement of their reality.”
- DeAngelis, T. (2009, February). Unmasking ‘racial microaggressions’ Monitor on Psychology, 40(2), 42. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression.aspx