Thursday 4 December 2014

"I am not a racist."

White people, listen up: If even the Klan claims not be be racist, think of how hollow your protestations might sound in the face of overwhelming statistical evidence that the United States has a race problem. 

Over the summer, someone said to me: "White men are the bad guys for everything now. You can't even talk about race if you're white without being called a racist." I found this hilarious, and was stunned to find, upon sharing this ludicrous statement, that it is actually a fairly common opinion.

Allow me to clarify: This is bullshit. I talk about race all the time, and have never been accused of being a racist. To add a wrinkle to this, my husband and I openly converse about racism and racial prejudice, and acknowledge that there is always a risk and a likelihood that we unknowingly bumble into racist behaviour in the course of our lives. We don't get accused of being racists, even as we admit that there are unthinking things we do that probably contribute to these social ills. We are likelier to accept that we might be racist, on some level, than the KKK. Such is the warped state of this national conversation.

If no one is a racist, then where is this racial bias coming from? We can see it in national statistics, anecdotes and evidence, and yet, somehow, everyone is blameless.

All of us have prejudices; it's one of life's great challenges to remain real with yourself, and discover what your own flaws are so you can take action to root them out and be a better person. This an everyday endeavour, the practice of refinement and open-mindedness and education. This is looking at patterns in the world around you and being really real that not everyone gets treated like you do. It is not claiming to be colour-blind as you negotiate a blame-shift because the situation is uncomfortable.

If you are protesting that you are not a racist, or that you can't even talk about race without being accused of racism, knock it off. Seriously, you are probably saying racist things, and dressing it up in some conversation about class, culture, behaviour, economics, affirmative action or any number of excuses that allow you a little distance to judge others without directly filling in the blank that you're talking about race. You are being judgmental, loud and ignorant, and that is the problem.

If you want to talk about educational achievement gaps, you need to talk about the impact poverty has on educational outcomes. You need to talk about urban food deserts and the PTSD-like symptoms that kids in rough urban neighbourhoods often exhibit that prevent them from being able to concentrate in school, leading to disparities in academic performance relative to their better-off peers. You need to talk about how relentless testing, failing scores and de-funding of schools drastically affects kids whose parents cannot simply move them to the suburbs or put them in private school.

If you want to talk about economics, you need to talk about the biases amongst employers that mean a black grad with no criminal record has similar odds in the job market to a white ex-con. And then you need to talk about how the people making those hiring decisions are disproportionately white, and how the crucial component of an inside connection for a job posting cuts along racial lines.

If you want to talk about prison populations and absentee fathers, you need to talk about disproportionate arrest rates between races, especially for minor crimes, and the fact that your white teenage son or daughter is lucky they aren't black, because if they were they'd be getting thrown out of school for minor offences, sent to prison over small amounts of marijuana or shot because they looked threatening. 

And your kids are not special. They are doing this stuff, too. I know from experience. Their skin colour alone is improving their odds of finishing high school, going to university and getting a job, even staying alive, because authority figures are not watching their every move like they are criminals waiting to happen. Instead, the police are likelier to be lenient with them, perhaps because they relate to them more as their own sons and daughters.

All of these problems are fixable. We just have to properly identify them at their source, and with kindness. There is systematic discrimination, and it is wrong, and it also breaks down into smaller, still-nasty pieces that can be attacked bit-by-bit. But you have to see that the problem is there, acknowledge your part in it and start to fix it, both within yourself and in the world around you. A huge part of that, the most important part, is listening to the people who are being hurt by this. Understanding what someone's going through, rather than telling them. So many people are experiencing the sharp end of racism, and I'd bet that each of them has some solution to the problems they encounter.

From my informal polls, it appears that no one wants to be a racist. We are not yet colour-blind, however much we might want to be in that post-racial world. We live shoulder-to-shoulder in this injustice and violence, and defensive posturing does no one any service. Soften your heart, listen, and embrace the possibility that you have been wrong, or misinformed, or you didn't know. We can all be better.