My White Friends, Let’s Do A Quick Check On If We’re Racist

This is like a Cosmo quiz, but for racism! And it has one question:

Have you ever told anyone that you’re not racist?

Like maybe you said, “I’m not racist.” Or maybe you whispered it to yourself. Or maybe you said to a confidant, “Thank God I’m not racist!” Or maybe when you’re hearing about the racist things happening in politics you think Those people are awful.

Then we’re racist, you and me.

It’s that simple. But we could think about it a little more.

  • Do we ever do a casual count of the number of non-white friends we have? Do we get really excited when we make a new non-white friend?
  • Are pretty much all the people we’re closest to in our life white?
  • Do we ever feel a little like one or two of our non-white friends have distinguished themselves from the rest of their group? Especially latinx or black friends?
  • Do we feel a little uncomfortable when people talk about racism because they might be implicating us when in fact we’re not racist?
  • With all this awful polarization happening in our country, have we been putting racists on the other side of divide, away from us?
  • Are we getting mad at me because I’m a snowflake liberal who hates the Constitution? (It’s probably time to move along to another blog.)

Even though we have a useful yet incomplete checklist above (“What are your thoughts on welfare, Pandora’s Box?”), racism isn’t that simple to admit—not because we’re not racist—but because self-reflection often pits us against our worst enemies: shame and embarrassment. We do all kinds of things to avoid shame and embarrassment because they’re the worst.

Here’s a story. When I was 10 I remember being in my kitchen by myself, having a snack, mulling over life. “I’m glad I’m not black,” I thought. “That would be hard. I like my life.”

That wasn’t a pivotal moment. It was just a moment. My 10-year-old self making sense of the world.

Here’s another story. After college I was interviewing for a Rhodes Scholarship. I received this question: “You went to a woman’s college. What do you think about all-black colleges?” I said that I didn’t believe in them followed by something like it’s better to face the world and figure out how to be successful in it.

It was a weird answer even as I was saying it.

In my early 20s, I wouldn’t have described any of the people I knew as racist. I had learned about slavery (abhorrent!) and looked up to the work of the Civil Rights Movement. But I had not thought about Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I’d gone through my life barely realizing their existence, let alone thinking about their power or purpose.

I did not get that scholarship.

My plan with the Rhodes Scholarship was to study human rights law. I would have been excellent at it.

Like Judge Kavanaugh who didn’t have any connections at Yale Law School and worked his butt off to get there (don’t worry, we’ll deal with “Are we sexist?” in the next post), I had done the same. I got a full scholarship to an excellent college based on my writing skills and academics. Similarly I was accepted to Teach for America, which is just as competitive as most Ivy League schools. Then I beat out a blind pianist to win my state’s endorsement for the Rhodes Scholarship and interview for the final cut.

None of those things made me not racist. And I was right to have not been given the scholarship.

The woman who asked me this question was the only black person on the scholarship panel. Years later I wrote her a letter to apologize. The letter wasn’t so she would feel better about me. I had already made my impression. The letter was for me so that I could continue to be active in the process of figuring out my racism—which is a do-goody way of saying that the guilt was killing me.

I had never examined the ways my life might have been shaped by my whiteness. I had chalked all my successes to my own hard work and my excellent upbringing. And as I ignored race and lifted up my personal achievements, the underlying racism of our society seeped in. Sure, I had black and brown friends. But as we know, this doesn’t make you not racist. It just gives you a shield to hide behind.

In this process it wasn’t until the day after the election in 2016 that I really started listening (spoiler: the bulk of our anti-racism work is listening). The more you listen the clearer it becomes that our future depends on dismantling racism and that starts internally. It’s a hard process, I get that, because shame and embarrassment are so powerful.

So let’s take a break and look at these fun maps.

How the Electoral Map would look if only ________ voted.


Map by Ste Kinney-Fields from Brilliant Maps.

Now let’s read this fun article:

“’People’ Aren’t Divided on Kavanaugh’s Confirmation, White People Are.”*

*Bonus activity for my R-MWC sisters: What university is the sweatshirt from on the guy on the right-hand side of the photo?

Admitting that we’re racist and saying it out loud does not make us terrible people. Ignoring our racism does. Not doing the work of dismantling it does. Dr. King had something to say about this:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” From Letter from a Birmingham Jail

“Aaaaaahhhhhh!!! It’s so overwhelming! Where do we start? How do we reengage? Where do I share cool stuff?” The comments. Especially on Facebook. They tend to be the most responsive.

Also read this stuff and tell us about the things you’re reading:

Me & White Supremacy series by Layla F. Saad on Instagram

Five Ways to Check Your White Privilege


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