Friday, October 16, 2009

Top Ten Reasons 'I am not a Racist' Part 1

Did you hear the one about the Louisiana Justice of the Peace who refused to marry an interracial couple? I did. These stories just sort of pile up on us like loads of dirty laundry, and this one took me down the treacherous path of "I am not a racist but ..."

Before I go farther, let's address tit-for-tat mentalities and examine the question "Can black people be racist?" We have to do that so we don't spend time in the comments section, if this post should get comments, with complaints such as "Why are you always talking about race. Black people are racist too. You're a racist because you see race. I don't see color," and so on and so forth. You've probably seen such comments before, the ones that treat any discussion of race like we're back on the schoolyard where we may cry, "Johnny hit me too," and that explains everything.

Can black people be racist? I lean toward "not yet." At least not in the same way that white people have practiced racism, and if we're evolving as a healthy species, then black people will never practice in America the kind of racism white people have practiced because we'll all agree we'd prefer to go forward rather than backward--that this America, the land of the free, the home of the brave.

Can black people commit hate crimes, as in beat up a white person because he or she is white? Sure, they can. But that kind of retaliatory hate is not the stuff of what we shall speak in this post.

Racism and its practice and perpetuation within the context of this post is viewed as part of a bigger framework that includes access to society's sanctioned forms of power, our current construct that has not yet passed away with a black president ushering in a mythic post-racial America. So, while we may agree that black people can be biased, can subscribe to forms of racial bigotry, are known sometimes to be xenophobic, and may also sometimes prejudge whites based on past experience with racist attitudes, we may conclude that regression to tribalism or acting out with similar hate in response to oppression is not automatically the same as promulgation of white supremacy racism, the belief that the white race is superior and the reality that having such power as a group they are able extend favor and benefits.

BlogHer CE Prof. Kim Pearson once explained the complexity of racism within the context of power this way.

Racism = prejudice + plus power. In this country, historically, the dominant racist ideology has been white supremacy. The belief in white supremacy is not restricted to people who are socially constructed as white. White supremacist discourse has permeated our laws, and culture, so its not surprising that there are people of color who live down the stereotypes they have been taught to believe about themselves. That's called internalized oppression.

Personally, I think that helps to explain the complicity of women and people of color.

The point here is that the individuals cited here are engaging in racist discourse and then exercising their luxury of claiming ignorance about what they are doing. (Professor Kim in BlogHer comments, 2008)

She was responding to someone on Maria Niles's excellent post, "Racism and the race: What's white privilege got to do with it?" The person to whom she wrote had said, "I'm not denying that racism exists. I am saying, though, that it is not limited to one race, or to people without color."

Next, please evaluate the following statement that I included in a response to someone else on BlogHer who, she agrees, misinterpreted something I wrote. She assumed that I was saying people who didn't vote for Obama are racist despite my clear statement that some people consciously did not vote for him based on ideology.

If your quibble is that you don't believe you have subconscious racial fears, then you may wish to take that argument to the psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists who assert that "fear of the other" is a survival instinct and humans with "normal" survival instincts have varying degrees of this fear.

Can anyone of any race honestly say they have no subconscious racial fears or bias? The word "subconscious" modifies the fear to mean a fear of which you are not aware.

... I would say without reservation that there are also people who voted for Obama who have both subconscious and conscious racial fears.

To have voted against Obama is not proof that you are a racist anymore than to have voted for Obama proves you are not a racist. Why do you assume that either statement has been made? (full comment here)

It happens sometimes. We see our fears instead of what is written.

I'm not including that quote to bash the person who misunderstood and later acknowledged that she did. I'm including it so discerning readers will see where I'm coming from when I respond to people declaring "I am not a racist because ..."

Perhaps it's my Christian upbringing, but I think racism affects us the way that Jesus said sin affects us. "All have fallen short of the glory of God." I think anyone who declares him or herself to be racism free treads the same murky ground of those who declare themselves free of sin.

Fellow blogger SJP dropped by on a post at WSATA and had a similar view.

The minute that someone says that they are not a racist then you might want to start looking for their sheet. And the same with anyone who contends and believes that we are in a post-raci(st)al society simply because Obama is Black. The very fact that such has to be said proves that our problems and issues with respect to race still exist. (SJP at WSATA)

After you've lived for nearly five decades in this nation, observed white Americans, worked beside them, lived next door, and in my case, attended boarding school with them as I did in my youth, after you have been well-educated western style, which means soaked in white culture and history, you can't help but develop a virtual sixth sense when it comes to evaluating what type of white person you may be dealing with after they talk to you for a time or you read their words or hear them on the TV or radio. The ability to size up the white person before you is a survival skill that I think black people may be more likely to develop in sizing up those with racial insensitivities than white people have in sizing up blacks. Unless a white person has experienced the flip side of cultural immersion, living with black people and being taught their history and consistently working in an environment in which black people are in charge, then they more than likely lack what I would call "racial climate reading skills."

This is not to say that some white people, after earnestly studying how racism works and influences society, don't develop a gift for spotting racism when they see it. It's to say that they're unlikely to be naturals at sensing racism or racist intent. It's the one area in which white privilege is a disadvantage. Oxymoron there, yes, I know.

All this to give you the Top Ten Reasons I'm Not A Racist list? Yep.

I'm walking on eggshells but hampered by work boots. Lately, most of what I see are knee-jerk responses at people of color's use of the word "racist." America seems to have re-imagined the three Rs--Race, Racist, and Racism--into the three rings of hells in discussions.

Take for instance the Obama speaking at a public school discussion: Was that like Huey's Dream on the Boondocks or what?

And so I felt that in order to write this post I must ease into a list of the Top Ten Reasons I Am Not a Racist. I almost feel the way Russell Peters says he feels in one of his comedy routines, one that has been criticized as "racist" ironically. He says he feels sorry for white people.

White people, my white American friends, I'm here to tell you something. I like you. And I'm not just saying that, you know, to say it. I'm telling you for a reason because I think white people have done some major things in the past 30 years. They've really taken some strides. And I feel bad for them, you know, because all the nonwhite people in the world have them convinced that they're racist. We have them so scared to notice anything of color that they're afraid to describe things accurately now. (Russell Peters, comedian)

I said I almost feel the way Peters says feels. More than likely, however, since he's a comedian, he doesn't feel quite the way he claims.

Click here for Part 2, the list

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE and also the African-American Books Examiner. You may keep up with her writing adventures at

Photo credit: W. Beinart, Time Magazine

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