I am beyond tired of the is he or isn’t he racist debate that leaps onto center stage whenever someone says or does something offensive, supports legislation that will maintain inequity, or harms a Black person. Last week the Washington Post interviewed friends and neighbors of the man who shot Jacob Blake, people who responded with defensiveness, shock, and tears to the suggestion that he might be racist.
The answer to the question is yes. Always yes. 99.999% yes. If the subject of the question is a White person who was raised in the US (and much of the rest of the world, but let’s focus on the issue at hand), ideas about White superiority were as unavoidable as air pollution. Racism was in their family’s words &/or actions, the events they did or didn’t hear about in history class, the television shows they watched and the commercials in between. It was on billboards and in song lyrics and the jokes their friends told at school. Our racist ideas are braided into politics and identity; they are an intrinsic part of capitalism and individualism and both the Democratic and Republican parties. There is no escaping racism in America.
I believe that every cop who has shot a Black person holds racist ideas in their bodies. I believe every White American schoolteacher and doctor and business owner, and most BIPOC folks in those professions and every other also hold beliefs about Black inferiority in their bodies. I was raised to believe that racist was the worst thing you could be, and yet I am racist. How could I not be? The only way to avoid it would be if I were raised by wolves or primates or sheep (yep, just went down that rabbit hole on Wikipedia). Yeah, perhaps the wokest, most meticulous multiracial human caregivers could create a remote fortress of anti-racism, but those folks usually aren’t interested in isolating themselves from society. Better the non-human animals that are happier away from people anyway. Of course, there might be one or two drawbacks to that kind of upbringing. Language and socialization and all that. I sometimes forget that anti-racism is not all there is to life. Anyway, you get the point.
Let’s just stop asking whether someone is racist, accept that inevitability, and direct our attention back to the systems that make that racism powerful and dangerous. This is not in lieu of prosecution, mind you. The subconsciously racist cop who shoots a Black man reaching for his wallet must pay for his crime, just as the Black kid who grew up poor and neglected due to a racist society must pay when he shoots a store clerk in fear during a robbery. (How they should pay is another matter, for another time. For now, let’s just agree that justice is necessary, but our racist, punitive “justice” system rarely delivers that.)
Maybe you don’t like this language. Maybe you prefer “we have racist thoughts” or “we carry racism in our bodies” or some palliative term like that. Maybe you believe you can be biased, but not racist because you are BIPOC and “racism” can only exist in those with racial power. I don’t disagree with any of that, and I hope you won’t let the semantics keep you from understanding my point. I personally have spent my entire conscious life terrified of being, or being perceived as, racist. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to finally recognize the unavoidable pervasiveness of my cultural education and accept my own racism. From that moment on, my anti-racist journey kicked into 5th gear, allowing me climb to the rung above guilt and shame and more deeply trace, deconstruct, and disempower my prejudicial thoughts and reactions instead of trying to hide or stuff them. It has also allowed me to talk to less racially conscious people with compassion, from a place of understanding instead of judgment, a place from which a perspective might emerge that shows them the way to their own path.
I recently completed a class with Dr. David Campt (the White People Whisperer on the Daily Show), and in order to implement his method of communicating with “racism skeptics” as he calls them, your own racism (past or present) is essential. You have to have stories of your own problematic thoughts or actions and use them to show the skeptic that you are on the same team – not the team of “yay, racism” but that of, “yeah, dude, I’ve thought that too, but I wonder if maybe…” and then link your arm in theirs as you casually lead them into the complex ecosystem of reality. “Let’s turn that racism into something positive!” sounds ridiculous, but that is exactly what it is. Start from where you are. Work with what you’ve got. Meet folks where they’re at. And other 5-word platitudes.
So then what do we do with someone like officer Rusten Sheskey? I think we need to look at him as a complete human being: both a victim of the culture that led him to embody racism, and a perpetrator that acted on that internalized racism with lethal force. For the shootings, he has to be prosecuted. For the beliefs and fears that led to the shootings, we go up the ladder. First to his Chief, who is clearly a problematic racist, one who is promoting dehumanization of and violence against Black people. What is a person permitted to say when their language can exacerbate the vulnerability of people they are pledged to serve? But it’s important for me to remember that he is also the product of his environment. I believe he should be removed from his position of power because he is promoting racist beliefs and behavior. But it’s not about evil: everyone will continue to be more or less racist in a society dripping with unavoidable racism.
So that’s where the real work lies: to deliberately chip away at the foundational racism in every medium, particularly schools, television, houses of worship, sports – all those things that condition us early. If you eat crap every day as a child, you probably don’t even notice the impact, thinking sluggishness and irritability and joint pain are just life. But if you are raised in a fruit & veg & whole grain family, you feel it when you join your friends for an all-American fat & sugar bender; you recognize the cause and effect; you know there’s another option. Racism works the same way. If we nurture kids with consciousness and critical thinking and compassion, they are unlikely to fall into racism later, because they know it’s shitty. Those of us old enough to read or write this have to work harder to get past our racist habits. It’s not easy at first, but it gets better, and it’s an essential step towards universal liberation.