I recently watched “Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story.” It was so helpful! In this 6-minute video Robin DiAngelo explains that we’ve defined a racist as an individual who consciously chooses to cause harm to people of color. Therefore, if you tell me I’ve made a racist comment, you’re basically telling me I’m a bad person. So I get defensive and make it so unpleasant for you that you don’t bring up my behavior again.
But the truth is racism is systemic, unconscious and pervasive. It’s in the very air we breathe. Racism so permeates our entire society that we can’t help but absorb these habits and attitudes. It’s unavoidable. And that is freeing.
Because now I can let go of my defensiveness and start working on the problem.
I actually experienced this defensiveness just recently in talking with another white person. It’s a horrible feeling. My reflex was to lash out and return the blame and judgment. In the struggle to maintain my self-command, my mind went blank and I could not recall any of the things I am doing and have done to help bring people together. I absorbed this person’s view of me. Clearly this is not a productive response.
Racism is one of those “impossible tasks.” Alone, I can’t stop police brutality against people of color, or the crippling poverty this system creates, or the mistreatment so many immigrants face. But together, we can. And every small action counts.
Seeing racism not as my own individual failing, but rather as a pervasive and systemic problem that affects all of us, frees up all kinds of energy. The air is poisoned. How do we clean it up?
For white people, we are very rarely put in racially uncomfortable situations. It’s easy for us to blithely go about our lives and think that everything is fine. But the systems in our society are skewed in our favor. Because we benefit from these systems, it’s easy for us to simply not see the inequities.
Consciousness takes effort. How am I listening? How am I responding? What am I not seeing? Do I interrupt racism when I encounter it? How am I connecting with people who are different from myself? What am I learning from people of different backgrounds?
How am I listening? How am I responding?