Let’s Talk About Being Racist
You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society. White Supremacy is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design. The racism required to uphold White Supremacy is woven into every area of our lives. There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist.
ALMOST TWENTY-FIVE years ago in San Francisco, I was jumped and beaten half a block from my apartment. It’s the one and only time in my life I’ve ever been assaulted.
The only things I knew about my attackers were they were young and male (I could tell from their voices) and they were black (I could tell from their hands). I lay curled in the middle of the street for what could have been moments or minutes, until a neighbor chased them off.
I then spent an entire month afraid of every single young black man on my street. I wouldn’t cross to get home until there weren’t any I could see near the front stoop of my apartment.
You could mount a defense for this, and I probably did. Something along the lines of arguing that since all I knew was “young, male, black” it was only natural that I’d be suspicious in this way. Maybe there’s a neurological reason somewhere in the lizard part of our brains. Except that to this day if you suggested I’d have responded the same way if all I knew about my attackers were that they were, say, old, male, and white, I do not know that this would be the case.
At any rate, after a month of this, with no sign this response on my part was diminishing, what happened was that I made a choice. After a month of this, I looked up at my street and told myself that the young black men on my street didn’t deserve this sort of ongoing fear, and, really, neither did I.
In telling the story that he did during a Hollywood press junket, Liam Neeson revealed a series of very different choices.
First, he specifically made the choice to ask his friend about the color of her attacker. Not his height, weight, gender, hair color, or whathaveyou. He specifically asked about the attacker’s race, and then he specifically made the choice to wander the streets with a weapon hunting black men.
Neither his murderous response nor my monthlong avoidance are sustainably defensible, but my point is that even if we emotionally react from the lifelong conditioning of being white in a white supremacist society, we do have a choice in how we respond to that reaction.
We literally have the option–or, really, the obligation–to call bullshit on ourselves.
Neeson, in telling his story, sought only to suggest that the horror of it was that seeking revenge is bad, or perhaps just costly. This, too, is a choice. The choice to pretend the terrifyingly racist aspect of his story somehow didn’t exist. It’s not like he confessed that he asked his friend the color of her attacker and then realized how horrible that question was, whatever we would then think of that. Instead, he straight-up confessed to a racist premeditation to commit murder.
One white movie critic threw up his hands in some sort of flailing act of performative despair, deeming the backlash to Neeson proof that one should never mention one’s “flaws”, even if they are in the past. As if once roaming the streets looking to murder a random black man somehow were just some sort of “flaw”. I don’t know where you even start with such a response.
I don’t relate my own story here to say that I am better than Liam Neeson, but for the context it provides. The context that says we white people (especially, although not exclusively, here in America) can’t help but be racist. That one white movie critic notwithstanding, it’s not that we white people should never talk about these things, but that we need to not be oblivious or careless about how we talk about them.
Neeson’s story isn’t a story about a white person with racist ideas about black people honestly confronting those ideas. It’s a story about a white person with racist ideas about black people not doing that.
I relate my story because I hope it underscores the fact that we white people need to take the fact that we can’t help but be racist as a given, and then make a choice about how we’re going to address it when it rears its head. I relate it because somewhere in your life, you have a story like mine, although hopefully not one like Neeson’s. Whether your story is public or private, what will you do with it? What choices did you make? Which ones are you making now?
That’s all we can do. Make a decision. What we choose ultimately, maybe, is what can make some sort of difference.
I repeat: stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them. We do have them, and people of color already know we have them; our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing. An honest accounting of these patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary.