3 Ways White People can Confront Racism
It Starts with Me
****Trigger Warning: racial slurs
White supremacy and white nationalism are on the rise.
And with them come accusations of racism toward white people. The systems and structures of our nation - and those who benefit from them - are being challenged in new ways and that can feel threatening. It makes us defensive. We have seen what happens to people who are labeled racists, and we don’t want that happening to us.
NOBODY THINKS THEY’RE RACIST
The problem, though, is that we’re not honest. We harbor racism but call it something else: economics, culture, reality, or “it’s just how I was raised.”
I recently heard an excerpt of an old interview with David Duke - former Grand Wizard of the KKK. He told the reporter that people misunderstand his views, that he is not actually a racist, he simply advocates for the white race.
The white men who marched in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 and chanted “Jews will not replace us” said the same thing.
In a small town north of Little Rock called Harrison, there used to be billboards around the town that said things like, “DIVERSITY IS CODE FOR SOCIALISM,” and “PROTECT WHAT’S WHITE.”
If the people of Harrison, the white men in Charlottesville, and the Grand Wizard of the KKK don’t see their own racism, then maybe none of us do. Have you ever met someone who openly acknowledges that they are racist? Probably not, because there’s always a reason, a justification, something rooted in the person’s perceived understanding of reality that validates the oppression of people of color.
As a white dad raising black and brown kids, I’ve given myself a bit of a free pass when it comes to confronting racism. I mean, how can I be racist with all these children of color in my house? But in the few moments when I’ve had the courage to be honest, I’ve come face to face with some dark stuff in my own heart and mind. Racism is there, even though I have never called it by that name.
Over the last several months I’ve been wrestling with my racism and want to challenge my white friends to do the same. If you’re a white person and someone calls you racist, here is a brief guide on how to respond. The worst thing we can do is get defensive and deny it exists. The longer we do that, the longer we keep racism running through our hearts and society at large.
It’s easy to get defensive and deny any accusations. It’s easy to blame the accuser of playing the “race card” or of being some triggered liberal. It’s easy to believe your way of seeing the world is the way of seeing it and refuse to validate the worldview of others.
But resist that urge.
Listen to them.
I have never considered myself racist. Yet when I look back on my life I see the places where inherent racism and white supremacy were (and still are) present. Nobody taught me to be racist. My parents and the village of adults who raised me would adamantly disavow racism.
But, our problem in white culture is not that we endorse racism, our problem is that we don’t define it well. And what’s worse, we have allowed ourselves to be the authority for deciding what racism is and what it is not.
If you are accused of being a racist, you do not have the authority to define the term. I know that sounds threatening because it transfers the power from you to your accuser, and that’s not a place many of us white people are accustomed to being. But doing racist things and setting the terms for racism is like an abusive parent saying they’re just “strict,” or an alcoholic saying she doesn’t have a drinking problem.
Listen to the people who know better than you. Listen to people of color who know the subtleties of language and the nuance of culture. Listen to people whose parents and grandparents and great grandparents bear the personal, communal, and generational scars of our country’s Original Sin. Trust that you have more to learn than to say.
Remember, nobody thinks they’re racist.
So, if someone accuses you of racism, don’t react. Listen.
2. Be honest
As the great Cornell West has said, interrogate your biases.
Deep down do you believe white people are better than people of color?
Maybe you wouldn’t use those exact terms, but do you believe white “culture” is more “normal” than other cultures? Do you believe the theology preached in white churches is true theology while theology in black churches is a less-accurate variation? Do you get annoyed every February during Black History Month and ask why there’s no White History Month?
Admitting you have racial biases is one of the hardest steps, much like in AA. But nothing can change until you ask - honestly - where racism and white supremacy exist in your life.
As I mentioned, I can see where racism exists in my own life.
When I was a kid, we used to go to a neighbor’s house, ring the doorbell, and run away before they could answer. It wasn’t until college that I learned most kids call this game Ding-Dong Ditch.
Everyone I knew called it N***er-Knocking.
One time my friend Nick - who is black - spent the night and I asked if he wanted to go n***er-knocking and he said, “Do you know what you just said?” I was stumped. I knew exactly what I said but had no idea why he was pointing it out. To me, it was just the name of a game like Scrabble or 21 tip-out. I explained that to him, and he went home.
In my early-30’s I was a youth pastor and took a bunch of high schoolers to a leadership camp at the Christian college I went to. Another youth pastor at the camp - who is black - was in the bathroom one night after an event. I walked in and saw him and said, “What up, brotha!” in the way white guys do when they’re trying to sound black.
He said, “What?” Not because he didn’t hear me. It was as if he wanted to see if I would say it again, if I was aware of the offense I had caused.
I hesitated and said, “Um, I said ‘What’s up?’”
He zipped up and walked out.
I was in a fantasy football league with a group of friends for several years. One year I named my team “The Jigaboos” because I heard someone use the word and thought it was funny. A couple of guys in the league called it out and said it’s a racist word. I got defensive at first, but eventually changed it.
Was I trying to be racist in any these moments? Absolutely not! But was it racism? Absolutely, yes!
As a white guy I’m not the one who gets to set the terms because I’m not the one harmed by my words, actions, and beliefs. Somewhere in my mind I thought it was okay to say derogatory things about - and toward - people of color. I’ve had to do some hard soul searching about where that impulse comes from, why I believe that as a white man I am endowed with such permission, and admit the fact that if racism exists in one part of my mind, it’s bound to exist in other places too.
So, if someone calls you racist, listen to them and be honest about yourself.
3. Change your racist behaviors
From here it gets a little easier. Once we are willing to accept the fact that racism exists in our own hearts and minds, we really have no choice but to rid ourselves of it. Because I sincerely cannot think of a single white person I know who is okay with being racist. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I truly believe it.
We change our racist behavior from the inside-out. Challenge the voice in your head that says things like, “Well that figures” when you learn a person of color committed a crime. Confront the subconscious thoughts that place greater value on people with white skin over people with dark skin.
Fight the urge to separate your words and actions from your heart. Imagine if someone said they like to set things on fire but they’re not a pyromaniac. If you say or do racist things, then by definition you’re racist. Our hearts are inextricably linked to our words and actions.
Ideally, you won’t stop at inner transformation but you’ll continue to expand outward. Support causes that benefit minority populations. Stand up for people of color in the community where you live and work. Notice the businesses and brands that support diversity and give them your money. Notice the way our cultural systems that date back to the pre-Civil War era were built with white success in mind and advocate for reform. You can go into the communities most affected by these systems and listen to what people need. You can join organizations led by people of color and support their work with your time and money.
This may sound like more than you’re willing to do at the moment, but at the very least you can challenge what’s in your heart and the voice inside your head. That’s where transformation always begins.
So, if you’re called a racist, don’t panic. Don’t get defensive or discount what the person is saying. Listen, be honest, and change your racist ways.
And if all else fails, here’s some good advice from twitter. It also happens to be the same guy from the bathroom at the youth camp in the story above. I’ve thought about that moment a lot, and I’m glad Sean continues to challenge people like me: