What Is Racism?

Some of the difficulty with discussing racism in today's society comes down to a lack of clarity on what racism actually is. Most of us, when we hear the word "racism", picture Klan members, burning crosses, and hate crimes. We picture the incredibly egregious - but obvious - racism. We assume that racism is "I hate black people". But often racism may be far less obvious or intentional.

Growing up, I had the belief that all black people were great singers. While that's not necessarily a negative thought, it's an untrue one. (Sorry, black people that aren't great singers! I'm a terrible singer too!) The reason that I'm sharing this, though, is because at no point when I was growing up did someone specifically say to me, "Look both ways before you cross the road. Don't take candy from strangers. All black people are awesome singers." It was a thought that I extrapolated myself, probably after seeing some of the greats like Aretha Franklin.

A lot of our thoughts and beliefs are things that we put together on our own, and they may or may not be accurate. Now consider growing up like I did, a pasty white girl in the mid-West. I grew up in a town of about 1000 people. There were no black people in my town. I didn't go to school with any black people. I never had a black teacher, even in college. So pretty much the only black people I ever saw were on TV. Consider the portrayals of black people in the 70's and 80's. Almost all of the black people I saw on TV were scary; they were the gangsters, the thugs, the hoods. I was lucky enough to have a family that talked about things like race, that encouraged equality, that specifically said that racism and sexism and homophobia were unacceptable. But you can still see where a person may wind up with some unconscious biases.

Now think if you were a teacher with the unconscious bias that black students just aren't as smart as white students, and that they're more likely to get into trouble. You're probably not going to be openly to mean to black students. You'll feel like you're treating everyone equally. But what we see in studies is teachers not pushing black students as hard for the right answer, not calling on them as often, not holding the same high expectations for them. And we see a likelihood of not having the same tolerance in class for "goofing off" behaviors; if you have the subconscious belief that black students are more likely to be disruptive and cause trouble, you're going to be quicker to crack down on that behavior than when a white student behaves the exact same way.

Suppose, now, that you're a police officer. If you grew up like I did, seeing black people portrayed as the "bad guy", you're likely to watch them more closely and feel the need to react more strongly. And it's not a deliberate behavior. We know that black people are more likely to have the police called on them for minor things, we know that black people are more likely to be stopped by police, and we know that black people have higher odds of being killed by the police. I don't think for a second that the cop who killed Tamir Rice pulled up and said, "Eeek! A black man! I'd better shoot!" But I do think that in those few seconds as he scanned the scene, the implicit bias that black men are more dangerous was at work. The subconscious registered a "threat" where it otherwise may not have. And in situations like that, split-seconds count.

As long as we continue to think racism is just "hating black people" and ignore the fact that it's often all of these biased beliefs floating around in the back of our minds, we aren't going to really listen to black people talk about their experiences. We think, "I don't hate black people, so I can't be racist. Therefore, I don't need to concern myself with it." None of us like thinking we might be biased, that we might not be entirely rational. We definitely don't want to believe that we might have benefitted from white privilege.

To be a true ally to my friends of color, I have to acknowledge that I have benefitted from white privilege. That doesn't mean that I haven't had to work to get where I am. That doesn't mean that my life has been perfect and I've not had tough times. It just means that the color of my skin hasn't been one of the things that has made life hard.

So I guess the point I'm trying to make is just that we need to listen to what people of color are saying about their experiences, without getting defensive. Without feeling like we have to clarify that "I'm not like that!" Without making it about us. Obviously I'm not an expert on racism, because I've never experienced it personally. But I am willing to learn, to listen if I'm told something I said or did comes across as racist, and to try to be better. And I challenge each of you to work through your own discomfort, to think honestly about your own biases, and to always strive to do better.

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