Whenever I engage in a conversation with another white person
or speak to an audience about how white people tend to whisper
around issues of systemic and institutional racism - and thereby
participate in perpetuating it - I urge people to to challenge
themselves. To dig underneath their resistance and become deeply
curious about not only how we replicate systemic racism in our
everyday life, but also how adamantly we deny and deflect attention
away from it - even when we think we are working against it.
Yes, even those of us who claim to be anti-racist activists, who
see ourselves as hip white liberals, progressives, social workers,
or religious leaders still resist, refute and cup our hands over
our ears when it comes to facing our racist selves.
The resistance that surfaces is consistent and fairly predictable.
Just yesterday as I was waiting for the masseuse to arrive in
the lobby of a holistic healing center where I was scheduled for
a massage (yes, writing about racism is stressful) and the woman
who greeted me asked where I was from and expressed interest in
what I did. I told her I was staying nearby and working
on a book about how white people whisper around issues of race.
Before I could finish my sentence she blurted out - with a larger
than natural smile and a razor sharp edge - “well we aren’t the
only ones who whisper about race you know”!
Holding her gaze I let a moment pass so that it might register
with her that her response was rather quick and perhaps even a
little defensive before I explained that while that may be true,
because I am white, I speak to other whites about what I know
is true for many of us. I added that I was interested in exploring
what my own particular ‘nickel (or dime) in the quarter’ of systemic
racism is, instead of seeing it as something outside of me or
Her smile got even bigger - big enough that it appeared she might
split a seam in her cheeks - and she commended me for doing such
worthy work as she continued to back out of the room sideways
never to make eye contact again. An interesting response
from someone in a holistic healing environment committed to helping
people physically and emotionally release and heal issues that
are stored in the body as a result of stress, disappointment,
anger and grief.
Regardless that the center’s brochures promised more peaceful
and authentic living as a result of their services, her deflecting
away from my main point - white’s whispering - indicated her unwillingness
to release some of her own deeply held beliefs. Rather than judging
her, I found myself wondering how we have all been damaged by
this thing called racism.
Racist in Recovery
What if white people stopped obsessing over whether or not we
are “racist" or defending ourselves so vigorously lest
someone confuse us for a real racist. What if we were to just
accept that yes, indeed, we are probably racist and that there
is a better than average chance that we have internalized racist
notions of superiority and and entitlement and that only to the
degree that we commit to “recovering” from being racist
- through our actions - can we ever hope to become less racist?
What if collectively our goal was to disrupt covert racist practices
and policies in all institutions that continue to marginalize
people of color so that by the end of our life we will have become
"less racist", thereby taking a bite out of systemic
It is arguably implausible - if not impossible - to expect that
after several centuries in which being classified white meant
opportunity, access and advantage, while being black meant brutalization
and enslavement, to expect that the members of the dominant majority
culture would easily relinquish their distorted sense of entitlement
and superiority without going through some sort of "de-programming".
After all, there was no recovery program for whites (or Blacks)
following Brown vs Board of Education, which resulted in integrated
schools, or after the Voting Rights Act, which allowed Blacks
to vote. Without much (or any) self (or collective) reflection
as to why and how legal discrimination had damaged us, it just
became illegal to discriminate - that is, if you could prove it.
Because very little had happened to change people internally,
more subtle and covert methods have been developed - and continue
to work - in maintaining white supremacy in education, housing
The privileges of being born white in the U.S. have been akin
to inheriting a racial American Express card of sorts - wherein
you enjoy unearned credit, elevated status and the assurance that
your needs and desires are placed above those "less deserving"
or entitled i.e. non-whites. Yes, membership has always had its
privileges. And inevitably, like a teenager given a brand new
car on his 16th birthday, one becomes accustomed - if not addicted
- to the privileges afforded them because of their status.
There are some striking similarities between an alcoholic who
finally faces the trail of devastation left in the wake of acknowledging
alcohol abuse and the revelation on the part of whites who
finally recognize that in many ways we continue to feed an unconscious
addiction to power and privilege - which negatively impacts others.
Only when the alcoholic commits to a recovery process that involves
facing the origins of his condition (taking a moral inventory)
and pledging to "manage" the alcoholism, is there the
potential for healing - for him and those affected by his abuse.
According to most experts in the field of addiction
recovery, “once an alcoholic always an alcoholic”. Although
the general consensus is there is no cure, the objective is to
"manage" the disease, which involves the practice of
not-drinking as well as establishing new behaviors and habits
that don’t involve alcohol. It is a re-learning. Also part
of "managing" the disease involves brutal and honest
reflection along with painful admissions of how the alcoholic’s
behaviors have caused others to suffer.
Much like the alcoholic, the racist in recovery takes responsibility
for his or her participation in a system in which he or she has
benefited and pledges to practice being a non-racist through actively
disrupting racism rather than passive disengagement. And
like the alcoholic it is one step, one day at a time.
here to read any of the parts of this series of commentaries.
BC Columnist Molly Secours is a Nashville
writer/filmmaker/speaker host of her Beneath The Spin radio program
at 88.1 WFSK at Fisk. Her websites are mollysecours.com
here to contact Ms. Secours.