First the bad news: you’re racist. The good news?
You don’t know it:
We white Americans all-too-seldom reflect upon the issue of racism, because we don’t have to. We don’t have to think about it, because the system is set up to benefit us, at the expense of people of color, without our ever doing anything mean or unkind, so it is very easy never to even notice how life is for someone not in our majority. [Call me a grammarist, but that's a run-on sentence. Ed.]
Racism has often been referred to as a “cancer” on and in society. But that has never struck me as terribly apt or helpful, despite its obviously negative connotation. So I began wondering what a more helpful metaphor might be for racism and its on-going effect on many of our citizens. And for some reason, it occurred to me that many of the things we say about being infected with HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, are true of racism:
Many people who are infected don’t know it. Those infected by racism are largely oblivious to it. It operates behind the scenes and barely shows itself in the early stages. It can be an important part of who we are and how we operate without our knowledge. And because the system is set up to benefit us, we can easily believe that racism is something that other people get. Understanding our being white in a racist society is akin to getting a fish in an aquarium to understand the concept of water – it is simply the medium in which we swim, the reality that supports us and in which we thrive without so much as a passing thought.
If we (white Americans) are the fish swimming in the racist medium in this simile, oblivious of our privilege, who are the schoolkids and frazzled parents on the other side of the glass pointing at the sharks and tortoises? African Americans? Do they enjoy the spectacle as much as my kids used to? Probably not.
But he’s not done with lame metaphors:
The only way to know if you’re unsuspectingly infected is to get tested. Testing is a voluntary and intentional act. It starts with realizing and admitting that I might be infected. It is painful to learn that we might be intentionally or unintentionally racist, and since we usually shy away from painful things, we avoid conversations and situations that might reveal the ugly truth. The “test” for racism is a lot less scientific than getting tested for HIV, and it involves having conversations with people of color (and other race-aware white people) about their experiences. It means listening to the words of people who have indeed experienced racism, and then believing that it is true for them – even if it is not true of our experience. And then it means searching our souls for ways in which we have colluded with a white-majority society in perpetuating such an unjust system.
Resistance to being tested comes from the fear of what changes may be in store if I’m “positive.” The scary thing about finding out if one has been infected is that if I have, then I will need to change some things about my life. If I open myself to understanding how I participate in and benefit from a racist society (even if I have no personal animosity at all toward people of color!), then I will undoubtedly have to decide if I’m going to resist the racism in myself and seek to dismantle it in the society.
Viral load can be reduced to undetectable levels, but it never goes away. And at least for now, it’s an incurable condition. Undoing racism in ourselves is a life-long process. We all acquire “default settings” in our growing up – that is, standard ways in which we tend to view the world and organize/understand our experiences. We can intentionally go in and change these default settings, but it takes our being intentional and vigilant – or else, the default setting reasserts itself, and without even thinking, becomes our standard operating procedure.
We’re all racist (we whites anyway); we don’t even know it; and there’s nothing we can do about it. Oh well, have a nice day.
But again, the metaphor fails to hold. Once a death sentence, HIV is treatable; infected people can live long, healthy lives. I observe without blame that HIV was spread through drug use and promiscuity. It was treated (if not cured) through the efforts of millions and millions of dollars and the united efforts of government and medicine. The victims of racism should be so lucky.
But all is not lost:
I am a recovering racist, and similar to a recovering alcoholic, who may not drink but who will always be an alcoholic, I must constantly monitor and manage my internal “settings” about race.
So, while you may always remain a racist, you can be a “dry” racist. Where does he come up with this nonsense?
That default setting in me was shaped in my childhood, spent in the segregated south, complete with separate drinking fountains and lunchrooms.
Wait a minute! That’s not my “default setting”. I was raised by hyperliberal, socialist, atheist, anti-racist lunatic parents. My crazy father voted for Eldridge Cleaver for president in 1968! My loopy mother left her young kids to go march in Mississippi in 196-whatever! I never drank from a segregated fountain, never rode on a segregated bus. I never called nobody n**g*r, and recoiled in horror on the rare occasions when I heard anyone else do so. And I’m hardly special. Explain to me how I, or millions raised just like me, am racist.
If I’m “guilty of being white”, can I just pay a fine and get on with my life? Actually, can I just get on with my life? Guilt is optional, and I’m opting out.
PS: If self-diagnosis involves “having conversations with people of color”, do we get to take note of their “intentional or unintentional racism”? We “typical white people” have our failings, but I think it’s more to do with our being people than with our being white. I think black people are our equals in this as in all other ways.