What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Racism
As the news and Twitter became awash last week with discussions of shitholes and presidents, I couldn’t shake this thought that for as much as we talk about racism, there’s a big blind spot that has never felt quite as opaque as it does now — something to be easily aware of, but very difficult to contextualize: we may be saying the word “racist” quite often, but we’re not talking about racism itself nearly enough. Let me state the obvious — I’m not an expert on racism, and would never claim to be. My experiences at the receiving end of discrimination extend to being an openly identifying Jewish person, and while I’ve had to stomach awful, hateful vitriol and threats of violence, I will never have to endure and survive racism. This is a piece of my privilege. My way into this conversation, on the other hand, comes from an advocacy for equality and parity, and an alliance with those who catalyze change. Whenever possible, I also try to be that catalyst myself, and it’s here where this conversation begins.
With the most recent evolution of the #MeToo movement, I found myself — a straight, white, cisgender male — asking the tough questions: have I abused my power and privilege? (I don’t think so.) Have I acted inappropriately? (I’m sure.) Have I said and done things that pushed too far? (Probably.) Have I done enough to change the system? (No.) I never once asked these questions to mitigate some lurking skeleton hiding in a closet, but rather because I needed to know the answers in order to live an honest life. I continue to examine these interactions daily, and I can say this with disappointing candidness…it’s not an issue of if, but when. A lack of verifiable certainty on any of those answers means there’s a lot of road I need to cover. No one lives a life free from scrutiny and error, and I am certainly not an exception. I do believe, though, that constantly asking the questions means I can be that much more mindful in my future behavior, and also more deliberately meaningful. The past is unchangeable, but it is prologue; the answers are universally wanting, because there is always work to be done.
These questions became pervasive (especially across social media) and I encouraged my fellow humans to ask them with the caveat that the blanket “I’ve never done this” response does more harm than good. I found that the pushback always seemed to carry context in relation to the women in our lives — the omnipresent mother/daughter/sister/partner/friend variable — when this problem is so much bigger than our relationship to it. Those of us inexperienced at racism have had to think about it a lot more in the past few years, which is undeniably a good thing. With some self-examination — especially in light of such public displays of racism from President Trump and in places like Charlottesville — I’ve become hyper aware that we’re not asking these same questions about race, thus proving just how insidious and systemic discrimination by its very nature. Even those of us who work to end unconscious bias are ourselves unaware of our own — and ay, there’s the rub.
As many in his employ offered context and permission for Trump to use that word to describe a continent of over 50 countries of dark-skinned people with various ethnicities and backgrounds, we not only lost the thread as a species, but we lost a tiny piece of our souls as well. Rather than examine the situation for any sense of nuance, his cohort simply defended abhorrent behavior. As a culture, we litigated the meaning of that word, or its use in the media, or even just its veracity, much more than we examined our own history with similar sentiments. And I do use the possessive “our” because even though I would never seek to defend racist behavior, at a certain point we can’t keep fighting these battles as “us versus them.” If We as a species have any hope of true change, then We have to start acknowledging the collective nature of these things.
As infuriating as it is to see anyone — let alone the leader of the free world — act with such overt racism, we all need to work on asking ourselves the questions: have I abused my power and privilege? Have I acted inappropriately? Have I said and done things that pushed too far? Have I done enough to change the system?
It’s not sufficient to only acknowledge or call out racism when we witness it, just as it’s not enough to post Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, without examining the larger, festering systems of suppression and disenfranchisement that still exist. We must work especially hard to reject the “I’ve never done this” response, and the laughable friend/coworker/partner/distant relative variable. We must align ourselves with good causes, ally ourselves with good people, and all become catalysts for change, because the work will never be finished.
Rather than engaging with any voice that rejects the claim of racism, we should double down on the questions and seek to create better answers. Even a misunderstanding doesn’t negate the larger truth, which is that racism exists, disparity exists, and systems of oppression exist.
And this is true of all ethnic groups — each face their own level of discrimination. But perhaps if we stopped immediately defending our own, and instead make ourselves an asset to help our fellow brothers and sisters, we might get to a place where discrimination across all lines of division ceases to be the norm and is instead some remnant of a bygone era.
Equality, like so many values, is a spectrum and not a destination. There’s too much that makes us unique for us to ever have true equality, and honestly why should we want it? Difference is not a negative or a pejorative. Instead, let us strive for diversity, inclusion, balance and parity.
How do we do this? We stop talking about racism as a thing that exists externally, and instead look inward to finally talk about all levels of discrimination the way we are presently talking about it with gender. In an age when we’ve so recently achieved equilibrium for marriage and same-sex couples, and at a time when we’re finally dismantling aspects of the patriarchy that have subjugated women in industry, government, culture, and society, shouldn’t we finally tackle race the right way as well?
That should be the easiest question of them all to answer.