"I Am Not Racist" Is Nonsense
I never considered myself racist—until about three months ago.
Posted June 19, 2020 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
POED: People of European Descent (a/k/a white people)—a term by Lisa Sharon Harper explained in an interview. 11
BIPOC: Black and Indigenous People of Color.4
White fragility: discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice; also a form of internalized superiority.9
Anti-racism: "Active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably."10
I am a European-descended, able-bodied, cisgender, advance-degree educated, white (hereinafter, POED) woman living in the United States of America. In the politically blue state of Massachusetts to be precise. The only checklist items that would make me more privileged would be to be a white man with a trust fund.
I spent the last 39 years in Georgia. One can drive down a major highway in south Georgia and see a cotton field with a menacingly large Confederate flag flying right in the middle of it. I drove past this field several times a month in college, over 15 years ago.
The cotton was never harvested. This was not a crop; this was a statement. Disgusting, I would mutter under my breath, driving by.
I heard and believed “I am not racist” from my family, from my community, and my church. We were “good people” who were absolutely “not racist.” I witnessed much overt racism my entire life. However, because I did not participate in this overt racism, I said, “I am not racist.”
The truth is I had no idea that I was (am) a racist. I contributed to racism for decades in ways that were unconscious and covert. I contributed to racism in ways that were also flagrantly racist. I continue to contribute.
Let me explain.
I have not written a column here in over a month. What could I say about the current climate? What do I understand about the loss of BIPOC lives; what do I understand about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, and George Floyd. I have been scared to write or say the wrong thing; that I don’t have a voice right now or shouldn’t.
At the risk of getting it all wrong, I write this article.
I write this article because I am a racist. I write this because maybe—in my words—you may see how you, my fellow POED, are too.
I never considered myself racist—until about three months ago.
After the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, I woke up. I had no earthly idea what was going on. I could not be bothered to learn.
Instantly, I was deeply, darkly ashamed when I woke up to my role (past and present) in white supremacy (a term that by its very utterance causes POED to deny, deny, deny).3 Shame is an emotion that POED go to immediately. Shame allows POED to reposition ourselves in a way that makes racism “about us,” attempts to absolve us, beg for instant forgiveness. Yuck.
When I recounted my shame in a podcast with historian and activist Lisa Sharon Harper, author of The Good Gospel and founder of Freedom Road, she told me: “Don’t be ashamed. Be enraged.”11
Shame is a problematic emotional function for many reasons. But shame in the context of racism allows us to feel shame yet elicits no change, no work, no moving through it.
At Lisa Sharon Harper’s behest, I laid down my shame and decided to pick up the rage. As such, my own anti-racist work began. This is internal work, mind you. At the start, I pushed away my desire to cry, to say “the intent was never” and to argue, “yeah, but I am a good person,” and finally, I erased these words from my vocabulary: “I am not racist.”
In my studying, I not only began to feel the rage, but I felt movement. I mean, action. I did things that held me accountable. I wrote about my own racism in a journal. I interviewed BIPOC in order to listen and learn (not to center myself), but to hear and provide a space for my largely-POED audience to hear. I donated to organizations doing the work. I looked inside of me. I felt the rage, and I moved into that as a conduit for me—myself—changing. This rage? I recognized that it's a tiny sliver of the rage that BIPOC has been feeling for centuries. I cannot understand centuries, generational trauma. After all, I have been awake for three months. I have felt rage for three months.
I was doing none of the work until I felt the rage. If I turned away, got off social media and thought internally “this is not my problem,” I would not be doing the work. If I left an argument instead of standing up, that would be un-rage. That would be racist. That would not be my own personal work of anti-racism.
Oh, I have fumbled too. I came out hot with my rage on social media in ways that isolated some of my POED "friends." It’s OK to feel the rage of racism—especially our own racism. Ouch. It hurts. But guess what? It’s OK to hurt. More than that? It’s time to hurt.
The issue is that I did not know what racism meant. Also, I did not care to understand racism. In fact, due to my privilege, I did not think about it. I was not emotionally equipped to handle the work. I was fragile.
I said “I am not a racist” when I was the most harmful, the most racist.
Not intentionally. But intentionality is not a requirement of harmful impact.9
POED cannot help the way we enter this world of privilege and unconscious bias.
POED enter into a structural system created to work in our favor—to keep POED in power, to keep us biased, to keep us racist and cagey about it, too. We have privilege that affords us the ability to turn away, look away, and consider any race “issues” not our problem. Then, we categorize, harm and dehumanize BIPOC who are fighting for change—in whatever way their voice is spoken.
We judge, we politicize, we legislate, we support, we harm. We ask BIPOC to speak nicer, we peace-out of conversations when race appears. We swoop in to “save” BIPOC and appear as "I am not a racist" for our own selfish back-pats. At some point, we take SATs and go to colleges based on a rigged system, get married or partnered, and run to the redlined suburbs with the “good schools” so we can raise privileged “color-blind” children who then pick up the torch and repeat it: a new generation of I-am-not-racist racists.c
By the way, I Googled the demographics of the suburb of Boston where I live. The racial makeup of the town is 94.23% Caucasian. Here I am. "I am not a racist."
We, as POED, have an internal voice and programming that tells us to “protect this white privilege” at all costs. It tells us to move to and stay in the "safe" neighborhoods, where it's 94% POED. And the worst part? We often have no clue that this privilege lives and breathes and feeds the system in us, in our world. We can only help what we do with the knowledge that we are racist—to do the work. This is a personal work. To write, to look inside, to involve ourselves in the process.
I ask for forgiveness for taking up this much space on the internet with my thoughts around racism. But this is how I refuse to remain complicit.
I realized the current world was not about “those racists” out there. It was about this racist right here.
I wasn’t awake until I saw Ahmaud Arbery gunned down in Georgia. Then when I began to do the work outlined in Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad.3
Maintaining silence around my own racism is not healthy for me. It’s not healthy for my anti-racist commitment. I must write. Not to center—but to declare that I refuse to collude with my privileged conditioning. I refuse to stay quiet in order to keep POED safer, comfortable, and privileged. I’m not showing up as an “ally.” I am showing up for my own integrity, my own work. Because for me to show up authentically in my own life, I cannot and will not stand with white solidarity and white supremacy, not consciously, not another second longer.
I will do racist things in the future. I will fail. I will fall.
But I will not collude. I will not protect my own feelings. I will listen. This is my commitment.
I have one last call to action for my POED brothers and sisters reading: Stop saying “I am not racist.” Instead ask instead, “How am I racist?”3 Remember, we were meant to be blind, stay asleep, and hungry to remain comfortable and privileged. At the very expense of other human lives.
The shame of our complicity is great. It hurts. It stings. It bleeds. Keep your eyes open. Look. See the damage. See the harm. See the system. Just remember: don’t feel the shame for long: Feel the rage.
BIPOC has powerful, brilliant, and long-standing leaders in the fight for equality. Look to them as you start the work. BIPOC is not needing an army of white saviors5, white-centrists (making it about “us”)6, shame and sympathy-seeking comments and accolades, followed by tone-policing BIPOC responses.7
This is not "about POED." But yet, it is. Because we each have a personal responsibility to wake up and do this anti-racism work—on ourselves. As Layla Saad coined: a responsibility "to be a good ancestor."3
How do we start to do the work? A great starting place is the list of references below. Keep doing the work. Stay accountable. Stay awake.
Resources for Becoming Anti-Racist:
NOTE: This list is in no way comprehensive. Start here, and see where you are lead. BIPOC leaders lead you to other BIPOC leaders. When you follow BIPOC's lead (and do the personal anti-racism work that will be required now and for life), you (and I) will begin to grow, learn and act. I remind myself daily: do not go back to sleep. Do the work. Be part of the solution.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: As comments or corrections of harmful or racist sentiments are brought to my attention where I have failed in this article, I will make corrections. I make these changes in order to ensure that the article is as strong as possible, does no harm to BIPOC. I will make these changes for that reason.
Why You Need to Stop Saying All Lives Matter: Rachel Elizabeth Cargle (https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a27075028/black-lives-ma…)
The Devastation of Black Wall Street: Kimberly Fain: https://daily.jstor.org/the-devastation-of-black-wall-street/
Good Ancestor Podcast with Layla F. Saad, Episode 11: http://laylafsaad.com/good-ancestor-podcast/ep011-robin-diangelo
A History of Racism in an interview with Lisa Sharon Harper on The Same 24 Hours Podcast: https://youtu.be/ECcfo08QUrM (For a great explanation of why to use “People of European Descent” when speaking of “White people”)
How to Be an Antiracist: Ibram X. Kendi (https://www.ibramxkendi.com/how-to-be-an-antiracist-1)
Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad (https://www.meandwhitesupremacybook.com/)
Introduction to Segregation in America, by Equal Justice Initiative (https://segregationinamerica.eji.org/report/introduction.html)
The New York Times Magazine: The 1619 Project (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-sl…
Antiracist Reading List: https://bookshop.org/lists/antiracist-reading-list
Reading for Change: Booklist-Recommended Antiracism Titles for All Ages https://www.booklistreader.com/2020/06/05/books-and-authors/reading-for…
“What is White Supremacy” http://www.pym.org/annual-sessions/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2017/06/W…
C: The Racists Beginnings of Standardized Testing: http://www.nea.org/home/73288.htm
1: “Ignoring racism in America allows racist ideas to flourish. Here's how to be antiracist.” https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/ignoring-racism-america-allows-ra…
2: How to Be an Antiracist: Ibram X. Kendi (https://www.ibramxkendi.com/how-to-be-an-antiracist-1)
3: Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad (https://www.meandwhitesupremacybook.com/)
5: The White-Savior Industrial Complex: Teju Cole
6: Confronting racism is not about the needs and feelings of white people:
7: Educators Must Mind Tone Policing, Edith Campbell https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=educators-mist-mind-tone-policing
8: “White Women’s Toxic Tears” – Lisa Sharon Harper and Jen Hatmaker https://www.facebook.com/jenhatmaker/videos/917605212052111/
9: The Social Construction of Whiteness https://www.cwu.edu/diversity/sites/cts.cwu.edu.diversity/files/documen…
(11) The Same 24 Hours interview with Lisa Sharon Harper. https://bit.ly/2YfLBoR