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I can hear the tortured cries of indignation: “Why does it always come back to race?”
The communicants of the White Saints of the Church of the Perpetually Aggrieved raise their protestations of umbrage to the heavens. From the perspective of the affronted, having their motives so regularly questioned justifies their reflexive sensitivity on the subject. (Their defensiveness about being called racist, however, seems to outstrip their outrage at the existence of racism itself. But, you know, whatever.)
However, the objections of delicate white sensibilities notwithstanding, it’s possible to be a racist without being a bigot. Admittedly, the assertion sounds implausible if not self-contradictory. People tend to assume that racism and bigotry are the same thing. This is what people mean, I think, when they say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”—even though they remain convinced that people of color experience economic/social/juridical hardship because of things like laziness, bad choices, poor parenting, and lack of self-discipline.
But racism has less to do with racist “bones” in anyone’s body than with systems that disproportionately disadvantage one group of people over another, based on nothing more substantive than race.
Someone will almost certainly object, “I don’t hate people of color. I don’t say the N-word. I teach my kids that everybody’s equal. How can I be a racist?”
Good question. But, as always, everything turns on the issue of how we define terms. A bigot, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, is someone who harbors prejudices based on differences—in this case race, but it could also be based on religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability, or immigration status.
Racism as I’m defining it, on the other hand, moves beyond personal prejudice, and centers on participation in systems that disadvantage, shut out, lock up, or otherwise beat down people because of their race.
Once again, someone will probably say, “But I don’t participate in systems like that. I go to work, raise my kids, and keep my nose clean. How can you say that I have anything to do with such systems?”
Here’s how: Refusing to say anything in the face of the harm done by racist systems is to offer at least tacit support for those systems. Silence in the face of injustice amounts to consent.
If you see children ripped from the arms of their parents and locked in cages, for instance, and you don’t say, “No! Not in my name,” you’re a silent partner in a system that locks children in cages. I wish I could say it more gently, but there you go.
Here’s the thing: There’s no moral Switzerland to which you may retreat to escape culpability for the evil committed in the absence of your dissent. If you were a non-Jew in Nazi Germany, you don’t avoid blame just because you didn’t physically herd Jews into cattle cars to be taken to the death camps. If you were a white minister in Mississippi who never spoke up, you bear some responsibility for the atrocities inflicted on African Americans in the name of “keeping the peace,” even though you never lifted a hand or raised your voice in anger against them.
Let me see see if I can get at this another way. After the scandals with catholic clergy and the misogyny of the #MeToo movement, we know it’s possible to be an abuser without ever laying a hand on another person, or raising your voice, or locking someone in chains in the basement. It seems fairly uncontroversial to claim that if you knowingly stand by without saying anything while someone else does those things—you’re complicit in the abuse.
In other words, you’re just as guilty of abuse if you remain passive, keeping your mouth shut while the abuse takes place, or, more actively, if you dismiss the trauma of abuse by making excuses for the abuser after the fact, saying things like:
- “Well, your Uncle Don is a good man. I just can’t imagine him doing anything like that.”
- “I’ve known him a long time, and he never did anything like that to me.”
- “You probably just misunderstood what was happening. You know how sensitive you are.”
- “I hope you realize that if you raise a fuss about this, you’ll be responsible for tearing the family apart.”
- “With all the pressure to get everything perfect, it’s not easy being responsible for everyone’s safety and well-being. If you were harmed, it’s not because anyone intended to harm you.”
- “You must have done something to provoke this kind of treatment. You should be more careful.”
- “Maybe if you took a little initiative, cleaned yourself up, got a job, you wouldn’t have to worry about being abused.”
- “I don’t see any actual cuts or bruises. You’re probably just blowing it all out of proportion, like you always do.”
- “Why does everything always have to be about abuse? Don’t you have other things in your life you can talk about?”
- “Have you ever thought that maybe you were just using ‘abuse’ as an excuse for your own failures?”
You may never shoot an unarmed black man at a traffic stop, but even though you have “black friends” and cheer for Steph Curry, if you don’t call for some accountability when it happens, you’re placing your vote for a society in which it’s okay to shoot unarmed black men.
You may not “feel comfortable” with Latinx children being warehoused in dog kennels, but if you don’t raise hell about it with anyone who’ll listen, you’ve made it clear that you’re willing to live in a country that imprisons the children of immigrants in Playskool concentration camps.
You may not “support” white supremacists marching with torches and beating up people of color, but if you don’t take a stand against them, you’ve communicated both to them and to people of color that you’re totally cool with white supremacy.
You may have a pure heart, be privately opposed to bigotry, convinced everyone should be “judged by not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”; but if you don’t actively work toward a world where racism is a point of historical shame, you’re a racist.
You can be a racist without being a bigot. I don’t know how else to say it.
This post was previously published on Derek Penwell.net and is republished here with the author’s permission.
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