Racism is in the air

Many white people have an idealistic and simplistic understanding of racism: good people are not racist, racists are bad people; and while overtly racist bigots exist, the vast majority of white people are decent people who judge others “by the content of their character.” But the reality is more complex.

Mural by Adrian Brandon at Pitzer College Mural by Adrian Brandon at Pitzer College

When a white person talks about “racists” in today’s America, they almost always mean southern right-wingers, white nationalists, the KKK. They mean those who think that whites are biologically and culturally superior and fight to ensure that this superiority continues to be matched with political, economic, and social superiority. There is still some racism in America, the thinking goes, but for the most part everyone has access to the same opportunities; there are some bad apples in the judicial system, and in the police force, but real racism ended with the Civil Rights movement.

Yet, people of color have a starkly different take on the state of racism in the United States. Many more see racism as an ongoing issue — one that is far from settled. Large numbers of Blacks, Asians, Hispanics or American Indians report experiencing racial discrimination on a regular basis. Not just from white nationalists, but from white people in general — including educated, progressive whites who, often ostentatiously, profess racial equality.

Good vs bad vs real life

This drastic difference between how whites perceive racism and how people of color experience it stems from a simple fact. To white people, racism is binary: good people are not racist, racists are bad people. And while overtly racist bigots exist, the vast majority of white people are decent people who judge others “by the content of their character.” This is, of course, an idealistic and simplistic understanding of racism. In fact, it’s quite a convenient way of looking at it, as it pushes racism back onto others, those far-away racists we don’t have anything to do with. But the reality is more complex.

In Walking While Black, Garnette Cadogan describes how, in the US, the benign act of walking isn’t so benign — not when your skin is black. Systematically viewed as a threat by bystanders, residents, shop owners, police officers, Cardogan had to abide by a number of rules to stay safe: “no running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects — especially shiny ones — in hand; no waiting for friends on street corners, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason)”. Failing to strictly adhere to those rules had gotten him reported to the police and violently assaulted by frightened white people. Those were not hateful bigots, but ordinary, well-meaning white people who simply see a potential or actual criminal when they see a black person.

Getting the police called on them because of the color of their skin is a reality for many blacks, but everyday racism goes far beyond criminalization and police violence. Good faith comments and attitudes often convey demeaning and humiliating messages. Assaults on black women’s hair, ranging from comments to uninvited touching, remind them that they are first and foremost an ‘other’ in a white-dominated society — these assaults are so common that a video game was created about it. And with their hair widely seen as ‘unprofessional’, black women sometimes risk their jobs simply by wearing their natural hair or a protective style. These daily assaults on their identity comes from average, well-intentioned whites, not avowed racists.

To white people, racism is binary: good people are not racist, racists are bad people. But the reality is more complex.

And while assaults on black people are the most violent, everyday racism is a reality for all people of color. Across the board, Asian-Americans and Latinos report being constantly reminded they don’t belong, that they are foreigners in their own country by way of You speak English so well or Where are you actually from? Hiring discrimination against Blacks and Latinos is still extremely prevalent, just like lending discrimination; blacks are systematically undertreated for pain, relative to white patients; university professors demonstrate racial bias against people of color, including Asians; and of course, policing and criminal justice are stacked against Blacks and Latinos.

Those hiring officers, mortgage lenders, medical doctors, university professors, police officers, or judges are not white nationalists. They are ordinary white people who are, like all ordinary white people, infused with racist assumptions and beliefs. Unintentionally racist, but racist nonetheless.

Product of our environment

Racial discrimination, then, comes overwhelmingly from white people who mean no harm. In many cases, those white people believe deeply in racial equality and abhor racism. But our thoughts and beliefs — such as the belief in racial equality — are just the conscious tip of the iceberg. Our attitudes, assumptions, and emotions are shaped by far more than what we are aware of. Much of who we are, how we think, how we interact with others comes from socialization: the internalization of norms, ideas and patterns from our environment.

The United States was founded on racism, on the idea of white superiority. The genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, immigration laws based on “national origins”, the internment of Japanese Americans, and racist laws were the most visible manifestations of American racism. But US racism goes well beyond that, and didn’t end with the repeal of Jim Crow: it is embedded in American culture at the deepest level.

Indeed, white superiority is affirmed everywhere, and most clearly in those institutions that shape how we view the world. In US public schools, curricula are decisively white-centric. History lessons ignore the contributions of non-European civilizations and minimize US oppression of racial minorities. Whiteness transpires in all subjects, even in mathematics, supposedly a subject that cannot be biased. Taught that progress has come overwhelmingly from white civilizations and white scholars, students can only be left with the subconscious belief that whites contribute the most to scholarship and to humanity in general.

Unintentionally racist, but racist nonetheless.

The media is, of course, another major influencer of how we think and view the world. There, racism is even more blatant. In Hollywood, people of color are vastly underrepresented, particularly in leading roles, anchoring a vision of white as the norm. Worse still, when minorities are cast in major roles, it is often for stereotypical parts, for example with African-Americans in roles overwhelmingly associated with crime and poverty. In the news too, blacks are greatly overrepresented in crime and poverty stories, unsurprisingly leading whites to grossly overestimate the crime rates of African Americans.

If education and the media instill in us racial biases, these are compounded by the fact that the United States remain deeply segregated-from schooling to housing. White people do not interact with people of color in ways that can correct our implicit biases. Our knowledge and understanding of these groups are limited to what is fed to us by teachers, curricula, news, films, TV, literature — themselves extremely biased. Our relationships with people of color are often temporary and superficial — we do not have the kind of intimacy and friendships that teach us about their lives. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that whites are more likely to sell drugs than African-Americans; in the American psyche, drug dealers are decisively black. While we all like to think that children are just children, regardless of their skin color, adults see black girls as young as five as “less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age”. It doesn’t matter that the “model minority” myth has long been debunked, Asian-Americans still face stereotypes of submissiveness and high academic achievement, resulting in harmful academic and professional expectations.

Racist biases are reaffirmed in all other kinds of ways in our daily life. The deriding of black names as ‘weird’ anchors the idea that anything deviating from white culture is undesirable — an especially problematic view given that the adoption of black names after the 1960s stemmed from a willingness to “affirm black culture and fight the claims of black inferiority”. And racial humor plays a critical role in perpetuating racist tropes, cementing them in our psyche. Under the guise of ‘just kidding’, racist jokes reinforce preconceived notions of racial superiority and inferiority, and further deepen the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, psychologist Beverly Tatum writes that “cultural racism — the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color — is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent but always, day in and day out, we are breathing in it.”

Socialization shapes how we think, feel and act. Much of who we are is simply beyond our control, whether we like it or not. It would be foolish, delusional even, to think that one can be immune from socialization. Racism isn’t about being a good, tolerant American, or a bad, bigoted one. It is about the air we breath. Children show evidence of racial stereotyping by age three — not because they were raised by avowed racists, but because of the cues they pick up from all around them. If you grew up white in the United States, you cannot not be racist.

Growing comfortable with discomfort

This does not mean that racism is a fatality, or that we don’t hold any responsibility in upholding a racist system. On the contrary, recognizing that we whites inevitably hold racist beliefs and assumptions, that racism doesn’t make us bad people, opens the door for self-improvement. Like Tatum writes, we cannot be blamed for the pollution in the air; but if we keep the air polluted, then we are responsible. If we are aware of the racist nature of our society, if we understand how our inner racism functions, then it is our duty to interrupt it.

But doing so takes work. Ending racism, at the political level like within ourselves, requires actively making changes to our lives, being intentional in the way we approach race. First, it means actively trying to bridge the racial gap, to learn about the other, about their lives beyond news reports or Hollywood blockbusters. People of color — blacks, latinx, Asian-Americans, Native Americans — have produced plenty of books, films, TV shows, where we can learn about their perspectives and experiences in their own voices — not told by white directors or writers. But that requires researching, reading, and watching, in an intentional way. It also means working to form or maintain relationships with people we don’t necessarily identify with, taking that extra step to look for commonalities that aren’t as obvious as with a fellow white person.

Racism isn’t about being a good, tolerant American, or a bad, bigoted one. It is about the air we breath.

It will also mean watching what we say, how we act, in our daily interactions with people of color, including our friends and coworkers. What we see as innocuous, harmless comments or attitudes often send denigrating, racially-charged messages. Those exchanges are almost always unconscious, but act as put-downs: using black emojis for fun; telling a person of color that they’re actually pretty white because they don’t fit with our expectations of how “real” Blacks, Asians, Latinx, speak and behave; asking someone where they are actually from. There are countless examples of such racial ‘microaggressions’, and far from the symptom of a supposedly oversensitive culture, they have a tangible impact on the health and well-being of people of color. It is our responsibility to check ourselves. This will feel like self-censorship. But hey, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. This conscious effort to avoid offending, to watch our words and actions, is part of the work.

Critically, it will require accepting being called out on our racism. In White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo demonstrates how a binary understanding of racism, and the accepted notion that racist equals bad, prevents white people from changing. Indeed, any suggestion that a comment or gesture was racially-charged is met with denial. White people simply can’t accept that they may have been offensive or oppressive to people of color because of their racist biases. Rather than reflecting on the feedback and trying to identify how to do better, white people take offense; they perceive it as an insult to their identity as good, moral people. This is what DiAngelo called “white fragility”: any feedback given to a white person on their racism is met with defensiveness, argumentation, withdrawal, or even aggressiveness. The result is not just a lost opportunity to grow and learn; it creates ever more distance between whites and people of color, who are yet again invalidated and likely discouraged from attempting to share feedback in the future.

This will feel like self-censorship. But hey, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Being called out on our own racism isn’t easy. It never gets comfortable; it always somewhat feels like a personal attack. But once we accept that it’s not a denial of our good intention or morality, once we accept that this feedback is instead evidence of a trusted relationship with the coworker or friend, it opens the door for deeper and more meaningful relationships, for more trust and mutual respect across racial lines. This work to undo the biases we’ve internalized over decades isn’t going to be ‘done’ in a few months, or even a few years. It’s a lifelong work of re-education. But that is the work white people must take on if we truly seek to end racism.

DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, recounts asking people of color how often giving white people feedback on their racism went well, and how her question was met with “eye rolling, head shaking and outright laughter […] along with the consensus of rarely, if ever”. To the follow-up question on what it would be like if white people would instead accept the feedback, reflect on it, and work to change their behavior, a man of color sighed and said, “it would be revolutionary”.

Note: while I recognize that complex issues of racism and colorism also exist among communities of color, this piece focuses on racism as it manifests among white people simply because that is what I’m most familiar with.