I’m a racist. I also try to be an ally but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m a racist and it’s not ok. It’s also kind of ok, but mostly not ok.
Ok, good talk! Goodnight everybody!
Just kidding. You gotta bear with me as I try to explain. Or actually you don’t but I hope you will.
Why am I going on social media and calling myself one of the worst things a person can be called? Let’s face it, even white supremacists will look you dead in the eye and insist they’re not racist. Actual freaking Nazis squirm and avoid the word but I’m over here like, “Yup, that’s me!”
It’s because us white allies are so d**n fragile, so scared of being thought of as racist that we basically just let racism happen. We won’t call it out in our friends, because “they don’t mean it,” or “Grandma is just from another time,” or “They’re actually really good people.” And we won’t do the hard work on ourselves because we know we’re good people, and racists are bad people, so we can’t be racist.
But we can be, and we are, and so’s Grandma, other time or no. It is possible to be a good person and a racist. It’s possible to be a meme-sharin’, sign-wavin’, protest-goin’ social justice warrior (or paladin) and also be a racist. Not only possible but easy.
Let me share with you two of my most cringe-worthy moments of racism:
I used to work for a newspaper. One day I covered the inauguration of a school program that encouraged father figures to take a more active role in the school, as positive male role models are important for kids. This event was attended by many of the area’s black fathers, grandfathers, brothers and so on, and the crowd was about 50% black and 50% white. The featured speaker was a black man with an engaging and very energetic presence. I took photos all evening, because my camera was a piece of s**t, and I had to take a million pictures to get a few that were usable.
None of the pictures of the speaker were usable. He was too energetic for my camera to make anything of him but a blur. I instead used what I considered were the best shots of the crowd. Those shots happened to show absolutely none of the many black attendees. I whitewashed the whole event.
Worse still, I didn’t even realize I had done it. I picked the best composed photos I had and didn’t realize my omission until a representative of the black community pointed it out, quite justifiably angry.
Another time, another job, a coworker did an unambiguously racist impression of a person speaking Chinese. She then told a “hilarious” story about how she had done this same impression once and, to her embarrassment, an Asian coworker had overheard her. Despite the fact that I was fuming in my chair that she could continue to think there was humor in her strange stereotyped noises, I said nothing. I don’t think I was unusual in not wanting to make a fuss. It was a workplace in which I knew my views were in the minority and rather than speak my truth, -that it was an unfunny joke and she should have learned something from her first embarrassment- I kept my head down.
“But Mackey,” you might be saying, “That’s not racist! You didn’t know you were omitting those people, it was an honest mistake. And who doesn’t have that one coworker? But will fights at work solve anything?” To you I say, I appreciate your good opinion of me but A) no excuse is good enough and B) they just might.
I say we’re all racist, because our society has racism built into it. We’re trying to live our lives in a sea of racism. We breathe it in daily, hourly even. Just to be crystal clear, by we I mean people who, like me, benefit from racism. I mean white people. People of color? They don’t get the luxury of ignoring the ocean in which they’re doused. I live in a little bubble of privilege that allows me to forget sometimes or hold my tongue. In those moments, my comfort has a higher hold on my decisions than my hatred of injustice. Even though I squirmed, I preferred my status as it was in my workplace, I didn’t want to maybe disagree with my manager, or have my coworkers look down on me and I chose that. I let racism stand rather than feel icky for a little bit.
It happens. It happens to everyone. To f**k up is human. But it’s that casual racism, that keeps the sickness alive. It’s valuing our fragile feelings more than we value justice that perpetuates the injustice. It’s the stupid racist jokes left unchallenged and the completely unintentional omissions that allow overt racism to continue.
Here’s the thing. If f***k-ups are inevitable, then the only thing to do is learn from them so we can be better next time. We didn’t choose to be born into this culture, with this sickness in it. That’s not our fault and occasionally succumbing to it doesn’t make me or you a bad person. We can’t be perfect, but what we can do is strive to be better. We can learn from our mistakes and (gasp!) maybe not make them again. Or at least make them less worse, or make new and interesting mistakes and learn from those too.
But we can’t do any of that good shit if we’re too afraid to look our racism, and the R-word itself, in the face. If some of my behavior perpetuates racism, I would argue that makes me a racist despite all my good intentions. But my good intentions can make all the difference if I am able to face up to my mistakes, make right my wrongs, and move forward better from the experience. The ability to take criticism is essential to growth
The day that the entire black community in the area my newspaper served had to appoint a representative to confront me with my casual racism was one of the worst days of my life. I was mortified, and even angry to have my mistake thrown at me. I felt shamed. That shame was all me, though. The gentleman who came to tell me how hurt his community felt at being erased wasn’t trying to shame me, he was just trying to be seen. Though the experience was painful, it gave me the opportunity to make amends. I revisited the story with proper representation this time, and going forward I made sure to have the people of color in that community strongly represented. I got better in a way I never would have if I had just rage quit.
Who knows, maybe that coworker of mine would stop making her horrible impression if someone, anyone, spoke up.
The best thing is that, with practice, it gets easier. You stop shaming yourself and get right on with the learning and the doing better. If you see me do something racist I want you to say something. I’m going to be working on the speaking up part, myself.
So. If you’re my Facebook friend, (and I am assuming that most of you, my 30 loyal readers, are) and you see me post occasionally that I am a racist, this is why. I’m Dumbledore-ing up and using Voldemort’s name so I can kick that a**hole out of my Ministry of Magic.
When in doubt, end on a Harry Potter reference,