“All Whites Are Racist!” screamed giant red letters on the yellow banner in the student center. It didn’t say much more than that, except to come to the theater at a certain time that day. I was outraged and I wondered what in the heck was going on, after all, that was total nonsense — I wasn’t racist and neither were my friends. We were good people, not scummy ignorant bigots. How dare someone imply otherwise?
What followed was a workshop with a man named Tony Harris. I don’t remember many details of the workshop but I walked out of there with a deeper understanding of my own racism and the impact it had on my life. Mr. Harris showed me that our tendency in looking at racism is to see how it negatively affects non-caucasians, when, in fact, caucasians are suffering great emotional pain because of racism, too. The workshop wasn’t a touchy-feely, “oh you white people have it so bad” kind of thing, but rather it was an experience that revealed painful truths: no matter our intentions, we white people are racist.
Defining “racist” must go beyond a dictionary definition. The way we use the term “racism” in this country is not simply “making decisions based on race.” The term “racism” as it is used today is about oppression and power. I define racism as “people with power oppressing people with less power, based on their apparent race.” Of course there are exceptions to “all whites are racist” but it is for the most part a true statement and the exceptions are fewer than most people like to think.
We white people grow up with advantages born unto us. For example, we are less likely to get stopped by the police and more likely to be hired for a job. Whether we like it or not, we have more power than people with darker skin. Because we have advantages based on our skin color, we are participating in a racist system and are therefore racist ourselves.
Through our families, through the media, through implicit and over messages we are taught stereotypes about people who aren’t white. Because we believe these stereotypes on some level, we’re afraid. Because we are afraid, we avoid people who don’t look like us so we can avoid feeling uncomfortable. Because we avoid people who don’t look like us, we have no opportunity to disprove the stereotypes we are taught.
Additionally, because so many of us are good, well-intentioned people, we feel guilty for our position, for our advantage, and for our country’s history of oppression. Because we feel guilty is one more reason we avoid anyone who isn’t white, so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable — so we can pretend it isn’t so.
Given this premise: all us white folks are racist, what can we do about it?
I have some ideas how on an individual level we can work towards breaking the bonds that have been holding us all down in this racist society.
I think of where I have lived. When I lived in a white suburban area of town I had rare occasion to interact with a non-white person. I had no idea the impact this had on me until I moved to an area of town where most people have dark skin — at first, I was literally afraid! All logic was out the window, and I just felt nervous and guilty and I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb being so white.
Well, it’s been some time (this happens each time I move in and out of neighborhoods where there are more dark skinned people than light skinned) and I love where I live. I no longer feel nervous and I no longer feel guilty most of the time. I haven’t escaped my racist background, but simple proximity to people who don’t look like me helps me recognize my biases and move beyond them.
Another thing I suggest is for you (if you’re white) is to be the minority for a while. Go to a bar filled with mostly Asian people, go to a Hispanic neighborhood association meeting, or go to a black church where you are one of the only white people around. The experience is terrifying and shocking when you realize this is what it must be like for so many dark skinned people in “your world” when they “visit.” It also helps to bring yourself into the reality that there is no “one” black person, Asian person, Latino person — among the darker skinned people there are tremendous varieties. There are fat and skinny, there are poor and wealthy, there are sloppy and neat.
It seems sad to suggest such things as “get next to a darker skinned person to get over your fear and your guilt” — it would be nice to believe that dialogue would be a first step. I think living in the same worlds is the first step, and I think it’s up to those of us who have the most power (the white people) to recognize our advantages and use our power to help make changes. We can choose to live in “black/Asian/Latino neighborhoods,” we can choose to attend churches and temples where not only white people worship, we can simply shop in supermarkets where not only white people shop. We can live our lives with conscious thought and with intent.
Since I don’t believe we can ever be entirely free of our racism as white people I believe educating our children is the most vital step we can take to changing our world. It’s our responsibility to guarantee our children grow up next door to people who don’t look like themselves, that they sit at school desks and work on homework assignments with children who don’t look just the same, and it is our responsibility that they are exposed to the richness and variety of the world’s cultures rather than just the white culture around them.
All whites may be racist, but it’s true that the children are our future and it’s up to us to teach them.
Here’s a link to some information about Tony Harris, he’s connected on this website to a “show” called “American Pictures” which looks quite interesting, the site itself is well done:
Note: This essay was first published on my website in 1999.