Holly at Feministe is fighting the good fight against a rather strong current of opposition.
The Bootstrap Myth
“Racism is a thing of the past… this is a free country, and anyone who works hard can make it in America.”
“Hey, wait a second, that’s not what I meant… I mean… you took my words out of context, don’t make it try to sound like I’m racist!”
The Remove the Right To Be Angry
“You’re too sensitive… if you weren’t so aggressive, vocal, hostile, angry, or upset, people would listen to you and you wouldn’t get in trouble!”
The Utopian Eye-Gouger
“I’m colorblind, personally… why can’t we all just ignore race, it’s not like it’s even real… it’s not like I tangibly benefit from being white every day or anything! Can’t we all just get along?”
Turning the Tables
“You’re being just as racist against white people, you realize. You’re being racist against me right now, you reverse-racist hypocrites!”
The Good White Person (not like those obvious racists!)
“Whoa, that guy over there is SUCH a racist, unlike me… I know exactly the right things to say and I’m never racist. By which I mean overtly offensive about it. Hold on, I think I’m going to go spit on that guy. I hate him.”
The Unblemished Family History
“Hey, my family never owned slaves, so it’s not like I, as an individual, get any benefit from racism!”
The Bending Over Backwards (makes you look flexible, but accomplishes little else)
“You people of color are so right. I agree with everything you say. Because you’re right, of course… not just because I’m guilty and white and wrong!”
The Personal Justification
“But a black person, Mexican, mean old Asian lady, or Native American once cut in front of me in line, said something stupid, mugged me, or took my hubcaps! So as far as I’m concerned, they proved all of my prejudices!”
The Loophole of Escape
“I can’t possibly be a bigot or a racist… I’m part of the oppressed due to the fact that I’m a woman!” (or gay, poor, young, trans, etc.)
The Culture Appropriator
“Damn, bro! You know I’m down with the homies, I ain’t no wack racist cracker, shiznit.”
The Lean On You When I’m Not Strong
“Teach me, help me. I’m just a white person, so I need your wisdom as a person of color to show me how not to be racist. Wait, is what I said earlier racist? How about this shirt I’m wearing? Can you come with me to this party, so they know I’m not a racist?”
The Pause for Applause
“Unlike all those other white people out there, I’m an anti-racist.” (…) “I do anti-racist work and I try to educate other people about anti-racism.” (…) “Wait, did you hear me?”
The Smoke and Mirrors
“I totally agree. Racism is one system of oppression among many interlocking ones, that specifically awards more privilege and power to all white people, whether they like it or not, and serves to keep the existing power structure in place. Oh… what? You want me to volunteer in a community organization, contribute money, do security for your protest march? Uh… yeah maybe next time, I’ve got to wash my hair tonight. And walk my dog, see the latest episode of Lost, manage my stock portfolio…”
The Penitent Paralysis (will not truly absolve you)
“Oh my god… that is so awful. I’m so sorry. Sorry. I can’t imagine what it must be like… I’m sorry. That’s so awful. I feel so bad for you. Sorry.”
Whipping Out Your Best Friends
“Hey, I’m not a racist, OK? Some of my best friends are black. See?”
Best Friend: “Yeah, I’ve known him since we were kids, and he’s never said anything racist to me!”
…and one bonus one for all your folks of color out there.
It Doesn’t Matter What Comes Out of My Mouth, Just Look at My Skin
“What? I can’t possibly be racist. I AM a person of color. How can I be racist against myself, huh? No, I haven’t heard of internalized racism, and I still think affirmative action is reverse racism!”
The people in comments are doing a hell of a lot of maneuvering, too.People seem to be taking this rather personally, because it doesn't offer an out for the "good" people. The non-racists. It implicates everyone, even those with a heightened awareness of racism.
Thing is, those non-racists? There is no such creature.
Holly continually points out that looking at the situation this way is dangerous. When we frame racism as the actions of individuals, as a character judgment, this is where we end up: we can't own up to an attitude or behavior as being racist because, you know, it's not dressing up in white gowns and forming a lynch mob. It allows us to separate out us good people from those nasty racists, who are way over there, nowhere near us, nuh uh. It allows us to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our participation in the institution of racism.
We need to make this clear: Racism is not a character trait. Racism is a SYSTEM.
Racism is the tea in which we are all steeped as children. No person can escape it. Racism is clutching your purse when a black person walks by; racism is managing your investments in Quicken. Racism is mocking a person as stupid by affecting an "ebonics" voice; racism is sticking to the safe neighborhoods when you take your children out trick-or-treating. Racism is hiring a Mexican maid or landscaper under the table for low wages; racism is staying at a hotel that employs same. Even if you didn't know it and didn't intend it.
Makes you feel squirmy and defensive, doesn't it?
You cannot escape this system. And the fact that you think you can bespeaks your white privilege in itself: no black person can escape the system where the taxi passes them on the street. No Latin@ can escape the system where they are assumed to be dumb and illiterate until proven otherwise. No person of color can escape the system where their resumes are passed up because of the explicitly ethnic name at the top -- where research proves that employers would rather hire a convicted felon with white skin than a person of color with a clean slate and the exact same resume.
The fact that you think you get to escape that system, just by saying the right things, is, frankly, an insult to the people who struggle against that system every day.
Don't take this as saying "therefore, you are a Bad Person." Because this isn't about who is Good and who is Bad. We all breathe the same air; you aren't bad because you take in some random gases along with the oxygen when you inhale.
But there is hope. Because when you stop viewing racism as an individual character trait, and as an all-encompassing system that none of us can escape, then you start to see how things can change -- really change.
You start to see that even though you do contribute to that racist system, you can reduce your contribution as much as possible.
You can start examining that privilege you've got.
You can monitor your language for slurs and dogwhistles.
You can attempt to change the latent attitudes you didn't even know you had.
And you can start taking action. Knowing that this isn't because you're some saintly Good Person, but because it's just the proper thing to do.
I myself use plenty of those Sixteen Maneuvers. We all do, really. It doesn't mean one of us is worse than the other. It just means we all grew up in the same world. And maybe, then, we can stop turning it into a holier-than-thou competition, and start working together to make things better.