why being called racist is the end of the world for us white people

It’s like being called a clearly offensive name in elementary school but having no idea what it means. So you just go ahead and refute it.

me, later in this post

Why is it that when you call a white person racist, you get such a big reaction?  The magnitude of that reaction doesn’t happen when you call a white person dumb or ugly or even impotent.  So why the word racist?  In short, it’s because we white people were taught and still believe a simplistic, reductive definition of racism; we white people live in an individualistic culture; and we white people have little to no tolerance for racial discomfort.

Let me explain:

1. We white people were taught and still believe a simplistic definition of racism.

Think back to when you were taught about racism, blatant racism, likely in history class.  You memorized the definition and some examples and symbols from the past.  Were you taught modern manifestations of racism (enduring racism)? Systemic racism? Types of racism?  What racism actually is?  Even the Merriam Webster dictionary did not reference the systemic element of racism until this month.

Instead we’re taught that racism is only the most nasty and targeted acts.  A person who is racist and commits a racist act targets individuals because of their race.  The “because of their race” part is the part ingrained in us. Plus, in the examples we learn in history class, we associate individuals with racism, not systems.  Individuals are racist. Not institutions.  Not the government or the police.  Not country as a whole. I mean, especially not after the Emancipation Proclamation, or any other point of “liberation” so celebrated in the history textbooks!

By recent protests — which have sparked, for me, learning intensely about the receding progress and action against systemic racism, I’ve learned how much I don’t know, or learned incorrectly, because of whitewashing.  Instagram accounts such as @soyouwanttotalkabout have taught me more about racism than my K-12 and college experiences combined.  (Shoutout to that account, btw.)

With this type of whitewashed, partial, and many times inaccurate background and meaning of racism, being called racist means — to us white people — that we have committed an intentional and nasty hate crime against individuals because of their race.

In case you haven’t heard lately, racism is much more complex, much more insidious, oftentimes disguised, backhanded and behind-the-scenes.

2. We live in an individualistic culture.

In the U.S., and really anywhere in the west, we value individuals.  We believe individuals attain success by way of meritocracy, by their hard work and time and dedication.  We don’t or don’t want to look at society as a whole.  That would mean that, oh!  So I didn’t get this promotion because of the work I do?  I didn’t earn this money because I am white?  And my favorite, “My family has money but I don’t!”

I’m sure you’ve heard similar.  Here are some more examples of individualistic culture-based excuses that we white people love:

  • I have black friends.  I’m not racist.
  • I was brought up to treat everyone with respect. I’m not racist.
  • My family adopted! We’re not racist.

Essentially this is what we just said: Because I’m not racist, racism is not a thing. Same logic as because I don’t have cancer, it’s not a thing.  Because I am not depressed, depression is a synonym for laziness.  Because you haven’t experienced racism does not mean it doesn’t exist.  It means you are privileged enough to never have experienced it.

I value our individualistic culture and I value the individual.  And I’ve definitely bought into this myth!  But that’s just it.  It’s a myth.  Because we live in a culture that values individualism but at the same time we live in a culture with institutional and structural oppression of entire races.  These two truths exist at once.  Or does the second cancel the first out?  One of the hardest things for us white people is to take a step back from ourselves or our family or our city and look at the entire system.

It cannot be about the individual in the fight for racial justice.  We must recognize the system, what it’s doing, who it’s uplifting and who it’s oppressing – who can change it.  When some of us are held down, all of us are held down.

3. We white people have little to no stamina for racial discomfort and conversations about race.

OK, but why is being called racist the end of the world, not just an insult or comment used for self-improvement?

Living through a white experience our entire lives, we have not had to come to terms with race in any part of our lives. Likely we don’t know what whiteness is until its existence is challenged by an outside force.  For you this may have been current events.  For some it may have been a book you read or person you met.  For others it may not have happened yet.

I had a college professor who once said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t fish.”  As a white person, I could not discover my whiteness or this white supremacist culture without work, because it is all I know.

Little to no experience having conversations about whiteness and white privilege and racism and etc. means we have absolutely no racial discomfort stamina nor resilience. We can’t tolerate talking about it. We are uncomfortable and afraid of saying the wrong thing. As you may have read in my previous post, I did not have the stamina to stay on my phone or consume the news the weekend after George Floyd’s death.  I could not handle it.  Now I understand why, I understand my privilege of being able to turn off the news.  (Oh, and by the way it is possible to build up your stamina.)

Being called racist through the lens of No Stamina is doubly infuriating because you swear you’re not racist by the classic history lesson definition and yet you know it’s not a great thing to be. It’s like being called a clearly offensive name in elementary school but having no idea what it means. So you just go ahead and refute it.

Wrap up

Allow me to leave you with some quotes from Instagram for some food for thought and/or to use as a journal starter:

Discomfort is not dangerous (@hannahpahl) What makes you feel uncomfortable? Why is that? Why does discomfort feel dangerous?

There’s no such thing as being “not racist.” We are either being racist or antiracist. (Ibram X. Kendi) What are you being? What do you want to be?

Further reading

So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

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