March 22, 2007 - Issue 222
Beneath The Spin
Let’s Just Get Over It—Being Racist That Is...
By Molly Secours
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 ‘over there’.
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 racism?
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 and employment.
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.
Click 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 and myspace.com/mollysecours. Click here to contact Ms. Secours.