For many of my friends and loved ones this will come as quite a shock, but for others—no surprise. Several, many times I have read that being called “racist” is the worst insult to pin on a white person. This seemed kind of silly to me, but after reading it over and over I was kind of wondering—why?
Last fall I took a literature course in which several of the students took great offense at the work of Dorothy West and Leslie Marmon Silko. The authors were called “reverse racists.” Or just plain “racists” when the white students began arguing that there is no such thing as reverse racism. One student implied that he was considering suing the university (yes, these are our college-educated citizens) for being “forced” (in an elective course) to read such “trash.” This guy is a Creative Writing major who hopes to be a published author someday and by “trash” he meant Silko’s Ceremony—the novel she wrote just before receiving the MacArthur Foundation*AKA Genius!*Award. Anyhoo, this guy, not a fresh faced college student but a mature, returning student, got pissed off at perceiving that I called him a racist. I mean, hurling insults at me pissed off. Of course I didn’t even call him racist; I just failed miserably at trying to explain aversive and systemic racism and how he was denying and contributing to them.
So again, I wondered why being called “racist” would be such tender spot for white people. Would “pedophile” or “thief” merit a similar response? No, because if there isn’t any truth to the insult it just isn’t effective. It doesn’t hurt or piss people off if it’s an absurd lie. “Racist” hurts when there is the slightest nagging inclination that it might be true. Racist hurts if you give a Black/Hispanic man the side eye when he walks towards you on a dark, unpopulated street. Racist hurts if you make a seemingly innocent faux pas, such as assuming that a woman of color with a fair-skinned child is the nanny. Racist hurts if you are irritated by people speaking other than English in public– or really anywhere else in front of you. Racist hurts because the probability of you being raised in a home and community completely free of the residue of the kind of American racism that did foster slavery, public lynchings, segregation and all other overt forms of racism—it is so unlikely that your parents, teachers and other role models were completely free of even a flimsy trace of racism—that you didn’t even catch a whiff of it. Racist only hurts when it’s true.
Now I’ve never, ever been called a racist, but that’s only because I have been well trained in hiding my racist indoctrinations. Even though I grew up around adults who used the n-word, the f-word and other racist slurs only in the privacy of their own home, I knew these were bad words, never to be said in public and most other private settings. I’m from Liberalville, USA and was simultaneously indoctrinated well enough in tolerance-embracing that I don’t and have never used racist slurs publically or privately. But I did not come out unscathed. I picked up unsaid clues. I learned my place in society. And I am racist.
It’s so painfully embarrassing to confront, that I can’t even admit to some of the things I “catch” myself thinking, some of the learned ideas and residual stuffs that pop into my mind. Normally I sidestep and deny these internal dialogs, but very recently I have decided that I need to confront them. I need to expel my racist ideologies as much as I can. After reading about Orientalism a few years ago I was able to see that kind of racism very easily on others and eventually in myself. I believe this is because I am frequently in the company of people who have been on the receiving end of Orientalism.
But other racist bits of me are harder to confront. I would prefer to think that these ideas in my mind are my parents’—but they are in my mind. They are my baggage.
The easiest example I can think of how racism looks or works in my head is when I heard about Haiti this week. When I very first heard the word “Haiti” my mind did an immediate word association as it often does. When I heard “Haiti” I did think “voodoo.” That’s probably the most common thing I have heard about the country and it’s the first thing to pop into my head. Now I didn’t go so far as to think “Haitans are voodoo practicing heathens!” but that’s probably in there somewhere. It’s under another layer or more, in my subconscious. It’s my learned racism.
I am racist. And it does hurt to say that. I did think that I was much better than that. It’s nothing I would want to be and really wouldn’t want my children to be. So, I’m going to continue to work on it. When I see those isms pop up, I’m going to confront them rather than continue in the cycle of denial.
Lastly, similarly to an email signature I saw recently:
If this seems abrupt and is wrought with grammatical errors, please excuse me. I have a bunch of distracting little kids, including one that I am nursing while I type this post with one hand.