It's very easy to be appalled by Dylan Roof's blatant hatred of black people. To see his desire to assert white supremacy is quite disturbing to most. And yet...for most whites, the ugly truth is simply this: White supremacy abounds in every aspect of our society. What makes it hard to recognize and fight against, is that is causes the system to work towards white America's advantage. And it's hard to give up advantages, seen or unseen. And an unwillingness to give up unfair advantages based strictly on race is an area of our lives where we exhibit racism.
Another thing that needs to be stated is that being against racism is not about being nice to people of color. It's about recognizing the systems and structures that create unfair advantages for one people over another. So one of the best ways to begin understand systemic racism is to expose yourself to information that explains what it's all about. But be warned...it's terribly uncomfortable to do this, which is why many well-meaning white people just won't do it. We end up feeling bad and it's just so much easier to ignore the realities. But in so doing, we foment racist systems in our societies and thus, exhibit an area in our lives where we are racist.
So what an we do? First of all, humbly admit that embedded within most if not all of us, is a racial bias that has been carefully honed through subtle and not so subtle means. Be willing to begin to listen for clues, attitudes and insights within yourself. Becoming aware of and acknowledging your feelings that indicate a racial bias is an important step towards owning your own harmful attitudes and thus being able to change. So be honest with yourself when you see a black man walking down the street...do you feel differently about that than you would if the man was white? Ask yourself why. Watch the news with an eye on biased reporting and be willing to call it out. Stop all forms of joking that hints at racial stereotypes and slurs. Find the courage to publicly object to these things. Stop deflecting your own guilt and simply try to enter the world of someone who is deeply marginalized in society.
Secondly, expose yourself to learning opportunities that will help you discern racist systems and structures and challenge your assumptions. Watch this video as an intro. One of the most powerful moments of learning occurred while we were visiting Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia several years ago. The first took place in the local courthouse. The clerk was looking for jurors and so he began the process of sorting. He asked everyone to stand since one of our assumptions is that all people start from the same place. He then went on to list all of the ways that you became ineligible to serve on the jury in the 18th century. If you are not white, sit down. If you are a woman, sit down. If you don't own land, sit down. It definitely shed light on the reality that the writers of the constitution means white, male, land owners when they wrote that "all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights." The second experience revealed my own short sighted thinking. We were on a plantation talking with a young African American who was portraying a slave. As we talked about life on the plantation, I very naively asked, "Do you know if the slave owner on this plantation was known as 'kind or good' slave owner?" He patiently smiled at me and quietly responded, "Well, no matter how good he was, he still believed in owning slaves." Doesn't that get at the heart of what many of us feel...well, I'm nice to blacks. I didn't own slaves. I'm not the one perpetuating racist attitudes. And yet...as a white woman, I believed that some slave owners were good and nice people, which they may have been, but they were still very racist because they felt it appropriate to own slaves. We do the same when we buy into a system that gives preference to whites over blacks.
Finally, intentionally develop relationships with people who are different than you are, especially those of a different race, and talk about biases, assumptions, questions. One of the most life-changing and powerful experiences I've ever had was reading a book entitled Divided Sisters with an African American sister. (Buy it here) We spoke honestly about the issues outlined in this incredible book. It was so hard for me to listen to my dear friend's stories of how when she entered a popular Swedish store in Chicago, the clerk followed her around, watching her every move. I came to understand that every minute of every day she is acutely aware of her race while I hardly ever think about being white as a factor in the way in which people perceive me. Other black friends have shared with me that they've been told to change their hair, consider dressing "less ethnically", even changing their name! in order to gain a greater advantage while applying for jobs or seeking to make inroads in certain situations. The translation of those comments is this: The white way of doing things is the only acceptable way of doing things." Imagine my horror upon hearing this. And by all means, resist the temptation to say that they were oversensitive or misread the comments. That belittles their experience and indicates that the racial bias is "not that bad" even though we know all that it is.
Friends and readers of this blog: I am by no means perfect in my understanding of race and if I am going to be brutally honest with myself, I know there are racist attitudes that still take root in my psyche. But I am committed to continuing to cultivate an awareness of the systems and structures that create racial bias and to learning to speak out against them. I am trying to listen more carefully to my own biases and seek to challenge the roots of where these instincts come from. I hope more and more people will be willing to do the same.
And one last thing...do not get tired of talking about racism. Fatigue over an issue that is pervasive for others, but not for yourself, is, well, racist.