Saturday, April 10, 2010

Blogging about Racism

Mark Chu-Carroll wrote a post titled I am a racist, in which he lists some ways in which he is privileged by being white, and ways he participates in a white power structure. There are 171 comments to his post, but not a lot of depth. He had to close comments because a white supremacist site linked to his post.

I was in bed this morning, thinking about what he'd said. I wanted to discuss it with him, so I'm going to do so here. You'll need to read his post first, as this is a response to it.

Dear Mark,
Thanks for your post. Anything that gets me thinking about these issues is important to me, as I'm the white mother of a Black son* and really want to be the best parent I can be. I do think the way you framed this is problematic, though. Your description feels static - it sounds like: this is the way it is, and it's not changing.

Partly that comes of saying "I am a racist." Nouns feel solid and permanent. I think saying something like "I benefit from racism and haven't done enough to challenge that" (shorter title: "How I benefit from racism") allows for more of a sense of movement. It would also lead toward writing about how you'd like to move toward a better relationship with this issue.

Another problem is that your list doesn't tell enough stories about your life. Why do you live in a sunset town? ('Sunset town' refers to a white only town in which servants and workers of color are there in the daytime, and are required to be out by sundown. Ugly.) Is it really still that way? If you feel a need to stay there, what might you do about the policies? If you haven't done anything about it, why not? There must be so much story here, and those details would help people understand this issue deeply, much better than your list of 11 items does. Many of the items seem repetitive. I bet if you told a personal story for each one, you could easily clarify how each one is different.

You wrote: I am a racist, because I instinctively react to members of minorities with fear.

My guess is that you don't react to women of any race with fear, just men. I'd also guess that the fear you feel depends on the person's particular race (Black versus Asian?) and class (business suit gets a pass?). Race and class are thoroughly intertwined in this country. (I'm sometimes afraid of skinhead white guys and I'm afraid of anyone who seems out of control angry.) I'd appreciate a post where you go back to a particular incident, describe the person you feared, and what your fears were. (I hear that you're embarrassed, but writing the details will help us think about this very common problem.) Yes, white people are trained to fear Black men in this culture. How can white people overcome that training? I think we need to see clearly what's happening and try to understand it.

When my son is older, will you be afraid of him? Maybe. You won't know him, he'll be tall, and he might choose to wear the current in-your-face fashion. But he'll have had a lot of privilege, and it might show in his body language. Maybe you'll know he's no threat to you. Some people will be afraid of him, though. That is crazy and damaging, and I wish I could change the world before it harms my boy.

Thanks for pointing out how hard it is to remember that our success is not our own. You and I had thousands of invisible privileges - some that everyone should have, some that no one should have. U.S. culture is all about individualism, and doesn't acknowledge the power of community. Let's celebrate the power of community, and do what we can to open it up, to spread the love.

Keep writing, Mark. I'm looking forward to some interesting stories.


Dear Readers,
Now I'll take my own advice and tell a story or two that comes out of Mark's list. It's hard for me to write about this, because I want to be perfect for my son. Of course I'm not... But my fear of ever saying anything that would alienate him makes it hard for me to expose any lingering racist attitudes. I'll do my best to write as much healing truth as I can.

Mark wrote:
1. I am a racist - because I never noticed all of the unearned privileges that are given to me until someone pointed them out.

Yep. It's amazing how blind we are, isn't it? I'm still trying to understand how we were trained to be so blind. Maybe it's not training, maybe it's human nature not to notice things that benefit us.

In my first women's studies course in college (1974), I 'learned' that the crayon labeled 'flesh' was the color of a white person's skin, ditto for band-aids, which only came in that peachy color back then. Now you can get clear ones, and decorated ones, and maybe you can find ones that match a darker skin color. My son likes the Blues Clues bandaids. I prefer clear - they're cheaper. And Crayola sells a package of 8 crayons in 8 different skin tones. (Of course corporations are happy to make another product to fill another niche.) What do they call that peachy color now?

Why did I have to 'learn' those things in a course? Why had I never noticed? It is upsetting, isn't it? But it keeps happening.

If you are white, did you know that Black people's skin colors don't show up as well in photographs as white people's? I didn't learn about this until I was in my 30's. Whatever the reason for it, you know the skin color of the folks in charge is going to show up well, because someone is going to make money figuring out how to do it.

If you are white, did you know that Black men have trouble getting taxis? I didn't realize this until the day I participated in protests after the cops who beat up Rodney King were proclaimed innocent. A speaker talked about his problem catching a taxi, and I once again was faced with how ignorant I had been of the reality Black people face. I started asking taxi drivers about it, and some of them were quite comfortable admitting that they didn't pick up Black men, because ... they were scared. I'd like anti-racist taxi drivers to get together and talk about the issues they face with people who rob them, and how to deal with those issues without oppressing innocent people.

If you are white, do you know how often Black people are watched and followed in stores? When I was a kid, I accidentally walked out of the store without paying (this happened a number of time). As soon as I realized it, I went back in and paid. I used to think, "I must look innocent." Yeah, how about realizing that my skin color (and other markers of class) made me look innocent? Hmm. My son's godmother is older and middle-class, and looks it. But she's still followed in stores sometimes.

My colleague's husband was in Palo Alto in the evening, and was asked by a cop what he was doing there. I overheard her telling a Black student about the incident. As friendly as she and I are, I don't think it would have occurred to her to tell me about it. There's a big inhibition among Blacks about sharing these stories with whites.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy MacIntosh, is a classic article on this issue. Worth reading. I also found the psychology study on our unconscious reactions (mentioned in the comments at Mark's post) interesting and worth doing.

I'll try to keep writing about this uncomfortable topic, trying to find ways to move from this bad, ugly reality toward something healing. I've written in this post primarily about Black and white, but I'm aware that racism is directed against lots of other races. The issues are complex and can benefit from some intelligent discussion. Please join me in the comments.


*A note on capitalization: Black describes a cultural group with a common history; white describes the people who were allowed into the group who were seen as 'us', inside, not different. I am Dutch, German, a small part Native American, etc. My ancestors were able to assimilate as white. In doing that, they lost much that isn't about power, but more about rootedness, and they gained privilege. Similarly, most men are trained into maleness, and lose connections to feelings, etc, but gain privilege. Gay men don't get the same quality of male privilege. It's all connected...


  1. Sue, I enjoyed both your and Mark's blogs about racism. I too am of the privileged white race and have 2 black children which we adopted 8 years ago. I grew up in a home with a black "maid" and my father used the word "nigger" frequently but,I certainly didn't consider myself a racist. But I too have had many everyday experiences that thrust the truth about how well the racist mentality was ingrained in my psyche despite my denial. I feel embarrassed and ashamed when racist thoughts pop into my head before I can monitor them. I worry most about my son and the issues he'll face as he ages (10 now). But the truth is that it's not just racism but fact that more black males are arrested each year for crimes. How do I protect my son from something I can't control? Despite the privileges he'll be given he'll be lumped in with the underprivileged. My heart aches for him and my daughter. I find myself wanting to make them as "white" as I can thinking it'll somehow help. Again I feel ashamed. I know they need to connect with their own heritage and culture (Haitian). It's a complicated dynamic. I appreciate reading others thoughts on the topic because it keeps me conscious of the issue - something that I believe helps us all move forward on the road to healing. I'm currently reading a great book - "The Hole in Our Gospel" by Richard Sterns. It has a Christian focus on taking care of the poor and does a great job of addressing the issue of privileged and non-privileged.

  2. @ Trippin', Thank you for your reply!

    Is your father in your children's lives? How has that gone? I had an uncle who used racist language, and had some opinions I wouldn't have wanted my son to hear. I was wary about my son and I being around him. But he cleaned up his mouth admirably, and was very sweet to my son. (He died last year.)

    >I feel embarrassed and ashamed when racist thoughts pop into my head before I can monitor them.

    Yes! The poison of this racist culture is toxic to all of us. It's hard to shake it off quickly enough.

    >But the truth is that it's not just racism but fact that more black males are arrested each year for crimes.

    Not sure what you mean by this. It's racist and it's a fact. Sometimes Black men are arrested for things others wouldn't be; sometimes they get harsher penalties. Also, more poor people are arrested, so that means more Black men.

    Do more poor people commit crimes? Well, maybe they commit more of the crimes that get prosecuted. I imagine income tax fraud doesn't get prison time as often as shoplifting does.

    >I find myself wanting to make them as "white" as I can thinking it'll somehow help.

    For me, this was the most worrisome thing you wrote. If you find yourself wanting this, I believe your children will get a sense that you value white people more, and that would be terrible. I understand that it's about protection, but they won't. It'll cut too deep.

    Have you read my posts on African American kids books? I think immersing yourself and them in Black culture that inspires is a good place to start.

    I wish you well.