As the white wife of a man of color, and as the mother of two biracial children, I have developed a keen awareness of racism. I can smell racism a mile away. Maybe farther. Unfortunately it is a lot closer than that. It’s the policeman stopping my husband on the street to verify ownership of his bicycle. It’s the stranger in the grocery store raving about my son’s hair. It’s the acquaintance describing my husband as "casing the joint" when he is being given a tour of a friend’s home. It’s the friend asking: "Is your hair real? Can I touch it?" It’s my doctor, my accountant, my mechanic. It’s my mother, my father, my sisters. It’s me. We are not necessarily bad people, we just don’t know any better. Right?
My husband and I frequently endure covertly racist comments and questions from our neighbors, acquaintances, friends, and most disturbingly, from my own family. These experiences leave me dismayed, angry, sad and wanting to fight back. My husband finds my naiveté annoying: racism has been an inescapable part of his life since before he was even born. I, on the other hand, have been an unwitting beneficiary of racism, via the endless privileges afforded me, simply because my skin is white. If you do not believe in white privilege, I wonder then, would you trade places with a person of color? Honestly? The oppression of people of color is deeply-embedded in our society. It is much more widespread than the Ku Klux Klan and similar white supremacist groups. Our society has institutionalized systems of sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism etc. These systems work in tandem serving one primary purpose: to sustain the White Male Patriarchy. If you do not believe this fact then you are going to hate what I have to say.
Sometimes racism is overt: clear and obvious to all. Sometimes it is covert and much harder to identify. Sometimes racism is intentional, sometimes, I believe, it is not. The impact of racism remains the same regardless of the intention. Today I am going to address what I like to think of as "accidental racism" by possibly well-meaning white people. I want to believe that most people are good, that they believe in equality and justice. However, because the oppression of people of color is so deeply-embedded in our culture, it is impossible to remain uninfected. Growing up white in this country leaves us, white people, susceptible to making comments, questions, assumptions, and jokes that inadvertently perpetuate racism and alienate people of color. These missteps can be so subtle as to be imperceptible to white people but people of color have no trouble identifying them. Today I am no longer oblivious to racism and am obligated to counter racism every chance I get. I believe we all do. We are not blameless and should be ashamed. My hope is that you, like I, will appreciate knowing what these accidents might look like that are hurting our friends, our children, our neighbors and that inevitably prevent us all from achieving our full human potential.
Am I racist for even writing this article? For even wanting to protect my family? Maybe. My husband can take care of himself. He doesn’t want, let alone need, the infamous "Great White Hope" coming to his rescue. But I am tired of these stories. Tired of cringing in silence when I fear someone is about to say something racist. I am tired of being right. I don’t want to run to my son’s elementary school in a panic when I find out the theme is "Weird Hair Day". I don’t want white kids to call my children racial slurs. I don’t want to find "Little Brown Koko," a racist fabrication from 1940, at the school book sale. Honestly, in 2012, the presence of that book at my child’s school is inexcusable.
So for those of you who care, here are some tips on how NOT to be an accidental racist. Please try not to feel defensive, intimidated or embarrassed. If you are guilty of some of them, it is not entirely your fault. My list comes from first-hand experience as witness and/or perpetrator.
1. Do not say: "I’m not racist, my best friend is black." Particularly when it’s just not true.
2. Do not start a sentence with: "Not to be racist but…"
3. Do not call a person of color racist. The misuse of this word only reveals your ignorance. The definition of racism is a system of oppression based on skin color, inflicted on one group, by the one in power, i.e. white people.
4. Do not tell completely irrelevant stories about your ex-boyfriend back in high school who was black, or Mexican or Chinese.
5. Do not insist proudly that you "don’t see color, I’m colorblind." It is not inherently racist to see people as they are.
6. Do not mention a person’s ethnicity unless it is germane.
7. Do not comment on hair or skin color. Do not ask, or surreptitiously try, to touch a black person’s hair, especially if you barely know him/her.
8. Do not ask a black person if his/her hair is real.
9. Do not assume racist stereotypes are true. Any of them.
10. Do not say someone is "acting white" because he/she does not fulfill stereotypes for you.
11. Do not use the word "dark" to describe anything but colors or the time of day.
12. Do not use disparaging slang such as "ghetto."
13. Do not "accidentally" tell racist jokes. Do not laugh at racist jokes.
14. Do not ask a person of color to explain racism to you. Get a book. Take a class. Go to an anti-racism workshop.
15. Do not expect a person of color to "speak" for his/her race.
16. If anyone comments that what you just said sounds racist, ask them to tell you more. Do not get defensive. It’s not entirely your fault.
17. If anyone says something you believe may be racist, say so.
18. Recognize and accept that doors everywhere open for you solely because your skin is white, or more specifically: because white people and institutions are racist. Open the door for people whose skin is not white. Just do it. Open as many doors as possible. I promise it won’t hurt.
19. Entitlement and privilege go hand in hand with being born with white skin in this country. Imagine a different experience. Read about it. Try to make it better for the next generation.
20. And remember, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third, is to be kind."– Henry James
It’s really quite simple: whatever you think you know about any group of people of color, just toss it out the window. I guarantee you, if you’re white and you grew up here, it’s wrong and it’s undoubtedly racist. Open your mind. Notice your thoughts. Question them but please, unless you happen to be in an all-white consciousness-raising group, keep them to yourself!