How can I be racist?

Let me tell you about something that’s annoyed me for years: White people making excuses about racism.

“I can’t be racist because my boyfriend is black.”

“I can’t be racist because my grandparents came from Poland after the end of slavery.”

“I can’t be racist because I know a lot of Hispanic people and they all tell me how awesome I am.”

Have you ever heard this general line of thought? Usually, I admit, it’s a little less blunt. Instead, white folks might start talking about their Asian girlfriend or wife like she’s a trinket or their black friend like a trophy.

Racism has surprisingly little to do with your friends or their skin color. Who can forget the Louisiana judge who refused to officiate a wedding because he doesn’t believe in the “mixing of the races”? Still, he claimed, he has “piles and piles” of black friends. Suppose that he really does have “piles” of black friends and he really only was concerned about the children this couple might eventually have feeling rejection from both whites and blacks. Well, unfortunately for him, it’s the judge’s willing participation in the system of racism that’s the problem. I sincerely doubt that the couple in question felt better that at least he had black friends after refusing to perform his duty and help them get married.

Racism, it turns out, has a lot to do with systems and your participation in and perpetuation of these systems rather than whether or not you know how to tokenize your acquaintances.

Second of all, racism as it has evolved in white culture over the last couple decades in the United States has to do with two routes often chosen as the best way forward. First of all, denying race. A friend of mine who attended the same nearly all-white high school as me told me once that he didn’t see race because he had a friend in grade school who was black and it was never something they noticed.

Now this is an interesting thing. Kids are blessed, I think, in being outside this complicated, damning and long history that is racism. I think it’s true that kids don’t notice race the way many adults notice it because they haven’t yet learned the significance of it. But can having one friend who is a different background than you sufficient to propel you into a colorblind adulthood?

The second route tends toward what I described at the beginning: Claiming your friends, your significant other, your acquaintances as proof that you can’t be racist. The first route is damning since it glosses over history and supposes that there is no tension between us. For white people, this is great. We get to forget that slavery ever happened because if we can’t see any black people, who’s going to remind us of what we did to them or that we still collectively benefit from this? The second route is just as damning since it objectifies otherness.

The closest we can get to “not racist”, I think, is realizing that we live in a racist system and acknowledging that there’s a reason why such a large proportion of those living in poverty in the United States are of African-American, Native American, or Hispanic descent.

Many people feel uncomfortable acknowledging this because it should make us uncomfortable to acknowledge that we benefit from a broken, unjust system. It goes back to the individual of a certain European descent claiming that they are exempt from the racism of the American system since their grandparents or parents (or they themselves) arrived well after slavery. “I never had any slaves. My grandparents were poor farmers in X, Y or Z country.”

Participation in a system is validation for the system. Racism is not about how much you like your black friend or your grandparents showing up on American shores to fight Hitler in World War 2.

Participation should make us uncomfortable. Silence should make us uncomfortable.

Silent participation = passive participation = acceptance.


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