In the anti-racism work that I am privileged to be a part of around the country, I often have people (usually white people) say to me, “I don’t understand what the big deal is. Racism is on the way out! We’ve elected a black president. There are laws against segregation. We are post-racial.” Indeed, many white folks seemed to think that the election of Barack Obama would lead to some sort of “post-racial” reality in the United States where past wrongs would be forgotten and present injustices would be wiped away, but what that seems to imply is that we white folks are simply sick and tired of hearing people of color complain. It’s almost as if we’re saying, “We threw you a bone! We elected one of YOU PEOPLE! Move on!”
The reality, though, is that racism is just getting harder and harder to identify as those (or should I say those of us) who perpetuate it are more and more covert in our racism. I thought of this last night as I was at a training to volunteer with an amazing program called Reading to End Racism. We were discussing some potential books that folks could read with their students in the program, and our trainer, Daniel, highlighted An Angel Just Like Me by Mary Hoffman, a story about a young black boy who looks around at all of the white angels on trees and in stores during Christmas time and begins to wonder whether there are any black angels. Upon hearing about this story, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s the heart of racism today! It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s all those subtle things that establish some people as lesser than others, as inferior.”
A handout I received in the session “Uncovering Covert Racism” by Dr. Anissa Butler at the 2010 Teachers of Color and Allies Summit defines covert or colorblind racism as “daily forms of ignorance and assumptions which are difficult to articulate for the racial target.” One thing that Dr. Butler talked about that I found particularly poignant is that covert racism is perpetrated by everyone, including those of us who consider ourselves progressive and anti-racist.
So why is this a problem? Well, as with overt racism, covert racism works to marginalize groups of people in our culture and deny them opportunity. For instance, a relative of mine is a successful businessman who might be in a position to hire folks of color. When I was hanging out with him once, the news came on, and a black high school basketball player was being interviewed after a game. My relative remarked, “Wow . . . he’s really articulate.” Now, would he have made that comment if a white player were being interviewed? Maybe, but I doubt it. “What’s the problem, though? He’s complimenting the kid!” Well, inherent in his comment and its surprise is that this is unusual. Thus, it assumes that young black men are, by definition, inarticulate (read stupid), but this kid is the exception. Whether he realizes it or not, is he, then, going to treat a white applicant who enters his office the same as a black applicant? See the problem?
Another common example that hear thrown around by white folks a lot is, “Why do black people (or Latino people) segregate themselves?” With students, it usually is framed as, “Why are all the black (or Latino) kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” To demonstrate the inherent and covert racism in this statement, a professor of mine once took a student who asked that to the cafeteria. Upon walking into the cafeteria, the teacher immediately exclaimed, “WOAH! That entire table is white! So is that one! Why are all the white kids sitting together in the cafeteria!” You see, when students of color do it, it’s abnormal . . . THEY are segregating THEMSELVES!
Now, I don’t mean to imply that we should actually desegregate our cafeterias. I think that during social time such as lunch, people should sit with those with whom they are most comfortable. Most often, those are folks with whom you share experience or culture. Hence, the segregated cafeteria. When this is made out to be a problem of the kids of color, though, it becomes a problem of covert racism.
The point here is that this covert racism is what upholds the systems of inequality that have characterized our society for a very long time. While formal, government-sponsored segregation used to uphold the system, the attitudes and prejudicial interactions that characterize our interracial interactions today uphold the current realities of a racially-unjust system. Without the covert idea that black people are lazy or incompetent, we would not have a situation where a white applicant is 50% more likely to get a job with the same qualifications as a black applicant. Without the covert idea that Latinos (or Latino immigrants) are lazy, unwanted, or incompetent, we wouldn’t have racist laws that allow for blatant racial discrimination against Latinos regardless of their immigration status. Without covert racism, we wouldn’t have a Birther movement that questions the citizenship of the president or religious conspiracies about the Christian president.
After all, this movement, one pushed in the vast majority by white conservatives, essentially is saying that the person elected to the presidency of the United States by a margin of more than 7% is an other. He is not like “us.” To assert, against the evidence otherwise, that he was born in some far-away, “exotic” place like Kenya says a few things. First, to all of the young black men and women who were inspired by Obama’s election to think, “Maybe I do have a voice after all,” it says “No . . . you’re still an other.” To white people who feel threatened by the notion that a black man (or a multi-racial man) could be elected president, it says, “Don’t worry . . . he doesn’t deserve it. It must have been one of those Affirmative Action cases.”
So what are we to do? Well, at the risk of sounding redundant, we have to start by changing from within! Far too often when a bad driver cuts me off and I see that the driver is Latino or black, there’s that additional twinge of “Typical.” I need to question, subvert, and replace this inclination. When I pass a black man and put my hand on my wallet, I need to check myself, subvert, question, and replace the inclination. When I assume that a Latino could or should go back to where they came from (as if they came from anywhere but here), I need to question, subvert, and replace that inclination. These are all very real struggles I face!
Sure, this takes a lot of vigilance, but what act of justice does not? I am vigilant to ensure that I pay my bills on time. I am vigilant to ensure that I am a good friend and good partner. I, too, need to be vigilant about dismantling the walls of prejudice, bigotry, and hate, no matter how covert, that keep me from building healthy and accountable relationships across difference. If we all are vigilant, then truly this is one way to build a world of justice.