Like most people, I never considered myself as racist. I grew up attending New York City’s public and private schools with a diverse friend group that I assumed absolved me of any associations with racism or white supremacy.
I didn’t consider myself racist because like most well intentioned young people, I saw my Black, Hispanic and Asian friends and I as “the same”. I think at a young age, this may be permissible because children playing together regardless of race affirms both their innocence and brilliance. They are able to view our similarities over our differences in a way that is seldom present in adults.
However, just because my friends and I had the same wishes for good grades and more recess, does not mean that the world treated us the same. As I got older and more educated, I learned that despite my good intentions, I was still contributing to and benefiting from white supremacy.
Many people associate white supremacy with the domestic terrorists who incite violence, commit treason, and protest the removal of confederate statues. However, I believe white supremacy is far more widespread and nuanced than that. And while I do anticipate fewer extremist demonstrations now that President Trump has left office, the systems that uphold white supremacy remain with or without his Twitter presence.
Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, makes the analogy that just like women could not obtain systemic power like the right to vote without the direct support of men in Congress, Black people cannot possibly dismantle institutional racism without the direct support of White people. Therefore, in order to eradicate racism in our country, the onus is on White people to engage in racial discourse regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us feel.
DiAngelo notes that institutional racism is different from individual racism in that it permeates American culture through laws, which afflict Black families from one generation to the next. No less than sixty years ago, Black people were redlined from owning properties in suburban areas, could not file patents, and were denied access to all but a few underfunded schools.1 Today, we see that black families have on average 1/8 the wealth of white families.2 Black students are four times more likely to be suspended at school (despite evidence that they do not misbehave more according to the DOE) and black men are 6x more likely to be incarcerated, where they then receive 20% longer sentences as compared to white men who commit the same crime.3
Looking into the future, there is now even evidence that the Artificial Intelligence being designed by tech companies like Google actually discriminates against people of color. AI learns from the data which it is fed, so if the data is chosen by what is so far, almost exclusively white men, the AI will benefit few and harm many.4
The existence of these ubiquitous discriminatory systems makes it harder for Black people to accumulate wealth and wellbeing, while also emphasizing White culture as the American ideal. People of color are consequently boxed into an “other” category, which is both demeaning and dangerous.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is Asian, who highlighted the experience of being “othered” by recounting how it can make you feel not only small, but deeply ashamed to be anything but White. I listened as he expressed seemingly endless stories of both subtle and overt racism, belittlement, and being “othered” in predominately white schools and settings.
We also discussed the use of the n-word, which was thrown around many times by our white friends, me included, usually when trying to rap like J. Cole. This is not something I’m proud of but feel that I must acknowledge in honest self-reflection.
Truth be told, I did not fully understand the significance of using the n-word until I was living in Colombia when I was twenty-one years old. I was teaching English at a local high school, where there was a friendly janitor, who told me that his name was Negro. I immediately told him that I didn’t’ feel comfortable calling him that and so I asked him to tell me his real name. He said, no, and insisted that he preferred Negro, meaning black. He explained to me that in his small town upbringing, there was no history of racial tension, therefore the name Negro did not offend him. I still didn’t call him by that name, but it was a profound moment, nonetheless. I had been so familiar with racism my whole life that I could not recognize it until I experienced its subjective absence.
The history of black people being enslaved in America, although it may feel long ago, still affects our country today in profound ways. The use of the n-word is such a big deal here because our country does have such a marked history of racial tension, enslavement, and “othering” as a means of denouncement. It seems obvious, but just like a fish who spends its whole life in water, it’s not obvious what is water until you have left the fishbowl.
As my conversation with my friend continued, we spoke about how it’s one thing to hear about racism from a person of color, but it may hold greater influence to White people when coming from another White person. It is therefore my hope that in sharing some of the ways I am attempting to better myself through reflection, discourse, and education that others may feel inspired to do similar things.
I said that when I was younger, I didn’t think I was racist, this is because I now see that everyone, myself included, is a little bit racist. I recently learned that racism is not typically obvious such as hate crimes but is more often subtle acts that belittle others. Even dismissing the frustrations of people of color or categorizing the person raising issues as “angry” or having an “attitude”, can reinforce negative belief systems, especially in young people.
It is my hope that this article can assist in the process of normalizing White people talking about race. I hope to serve as an example to others that it’s okay to be imperfect and to want to do better. I hope that the small act of internet publication can help facilitate conversation and inclusivity for all.
I do not believe it’s an easy task that has been laid ahead, but these conversations must happen if we want to leave the world a better place for our children. Even a small act today can spiral into something bigger tomorrow. Aspire to be great and be kind, or as my teacher once told me, “try and be the person that your dog thinks you are”.