There is a certain kind of obliviousness to race and racism that often comes with growing up in white middle class America. At least that’s true for me and a lot of people I know.
When I was in middle school, I watched the movie version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” with my mom. I gasped when the all white jury found Tom Robinson, a black man, guilty of rape even though his attorney had proven it was physically impossible for him to have committed the crime.
I cried and asked my mom how it was possible that they found him guilty. She told me that is what justice was like for black people in the south back then. I shook my head and I was happy that those awful times were over. Then I wept watching the dramatic scene when all the black people in the courtroom stood for the noble white savior Atticus Finch because he had defended Tom Robinson.
While I was growing up, that was the primary message I learned about racism. It was an evil thing in the past, mostly in the south. It was fixed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My parents dutifully taught me that everyone should be treated equally and now America was a true meritocracy.
Of course, I lived in a completely segregated white community and every school I attended from kindergarten through college was at least 95% white. Our family friends and acquaintances were all white. But we didn’t use racial slurs and we enjoyed the Cosby show, so we weren’t racist. There are a lot of white people like me who were raised this way.
I saw how little my hard work had to do with my educational, professional, and financial success in life and how much my zip code and skin color did.
I wasn’t completely naive, especially as I began to live in the world. I always knew racism still existed. I had a few black co-workers and acquaintances; I saw things. Racism was a problem but so were a lot of other things like global warming. I cared but it didn’t seem like a problem that I could play any part in solving.
Then Obama ran for election and I was shocked to see people I know suddenly show their racist underbelly; most did so in a coded, polite way and some in an overt way. Throughout his presidency the constant attacks against President Obama and especially the first lady were clearly about more than just politics, race was obviously a part of it. Then Ferguson was in the news. Then video after video of police officers shooting unarmed black people were on the news, again and again and again. Then suddenly along with a lot of other white people, I realized just how much I didn’t understand about racism.
I started to educate myself and pay attention to race. I learned about all the black history that wasn’t covered in my history classes in school. I learned about the school to prison pipeline and the legacy of redlining. I began to see just how much our entire justice system is biased against people of color. I could see at a much deeper level how poverty and access to education determine most of a person’s financial success or lack thereof. I saw how little my hard work had to do with my educational, professional, and financial success in life and how much my zip code and skin color did.
When you realize that you are a goldfish who has been swimming in a bowl of white supremacist water your entire life, what are you supposed to do about that water? You can suddenly see it there, but because it’s the water you swim in every day, how do you change it while still swimming?
If you are a “woke” white person, you now recognize that you benefited from a system that gave you unfair advantages and you’ve been programmed to unconsciously make judgments and assumptions about people. What can you do about it? It’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like any attempts you make are futile. It’s a big problem, far bigger than any person can handle. But like all big problems there are steps we all can take that will collectively make a difference.
I think a big part of the solution is for white people to openly deal with the shame we have when we realize our privilege and our implicit bias. Of course, systemic privilege is a big part of the problem, but dismantling entire systems is not something most individuals can tackle. All we can do is demand and support policy changes from our elected officials that will disrupt systemic racism. Beyond that, there isn’t much for the individual to do. Implicit bias, on the other hand, is something every one of us has the power to dismantle.
Let’s start talking about the mistakes we have made. You can admit your racism and still be a good person.
Implicit bias is real and there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have it. Implicit bias is also not a character flaw. It’s how we are programmed to behave; it’s not a conscious choice. There is no moral or ethical implication for automatic behavior that you aren’t aware is happening. The character flaw comes when you deny that implicit bias exists or do nothing to correct it.
My best friend recently called me to tell me that he realized he had committed a microaggression against a person of color. While out walking his dog he began chatting with his neighbor, a Latina woman, about how they were coping during the pandemic. His neighbor mentioned she was working from home and my friend asked her what she does for a living. He was surprised to learn that she is a lawyer.
He called me to talk about it because he realized after the fact that if he had been talking to a white man, he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he was a lawyer. He was embarrassed that he assumed a Latina single mother might not be highly educated. He hoped his neighbor didn’t pick up on his surprise.
We talked about things we were doing to try and shift our assumptions about people. I shared with him that I had once been at a courthouse that handled child abuse cases in a low-income area, and I assumed a black woman in a stunning green dress was a social worker. A few minutes later when I arrived in court that stunning green dress was covered with a robe and that black woman was the judge hearing the case. I was so embarrassed for the assumption I’d made about her.
If I’d seen a white man in a sharp suit, I would have assumed he was at least a lawyer or the judge. I had no interaction with her, it was just a passing thought but she might have sensed my assumption. You can feel it when people look at you and think you are someone important, like a judge and I didn’t give her that look. Even if she didn’t notice me, that doesn’t change the fact that it was a racist microaggression and I have a responsibility to acknowledge it. Yet we almost never share these stories with other people when we realize we have made these kinds of mistakes.
My friend and I both did racist things and we are not monsters because of it. We reflected on the situations and recognized our mistakes. My friend reached out to me, another white person, to discuss it instead of burdening his neighbor or another person of color to have a discussion about race. We are both actively looking for ways to change our behavior to avoid doing things like that again.
White people, we have to get away from the dramatic Hollywood version of racism. The stories with evil racist white people and benevolent white saviors serve no one. We are all racist and that doesn’t necessarily mean we are horrible people because of it. The trope of the good white person shames us into refusing to acknowledge our mistakes and our implicit bias. It gives us no room to grow or improve.
Let’s start talking about the mistakes we have made. You can admit your racism and still be a good person. To be clear, I’m not suggesting you start unloading your racist sins like emotional vomit on everyone. And I’m certainly not recommending you contact your BIPOC friends and tell them all about it or worse seek some sort of absolution from them. And of course it takes more than just talking about it to each other, without further action and a commitment to do better it’s nothing more than performance.
Implicit bias is not a simple matter and it won’t be undone with simple actions. However, any major change that happens starts with small steps. We have to get started or we will never get there. We need to make a common practice of looking for our biases and then sharing them with each other. You can’t fix a problem that you don’t acknowledge exits. So fellow white people, let’s start talking about it!
Previously published on medium
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