Here Are the Real Reasons Why We White People Struggle to Admit That Racism Still Exists

Originally published at Everyday Feminism.

When I was 18 years old, I listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on repeat.

My girlfriend and I would just sit in silence, listening to Lauryn unpack her brilliance, taking away something new each time.

So I was devastated when I heard the (now disproven) rumor that she told an MTV interviewer, “If I’d known White people were going to buy my last album, I never would have recorded it.”

I stopped listening to her because as a young, passionate liberal who “stood up to racism in all its forms,” I couldn’t in good conscience continue to support a “racist.”

Then, when a Latina woman I greatly admired suggested that it’s impossible for people of Color to be racist against White people, I lost it, furious at the perceived double standard.

And now, as debates about racism and a “post racial America” rage in my social media, I see these same frustrations in my fellow White people over and over.

We, as White folks, are upset that “everything is made to be about race these days!” We regularly claim that the “most racist people in the world are [insert group of people of Color].”

Many White people perceive that we’re under attack because people of Color and their White allies are angry with systems of racial oppression – and at us for our complicity in maintaining those systems. We get called names and told that our “White tears” don’t matter.

So we respond with how the dictionary defines racism as “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race.”

And by that logic, we’re the real victims of racism! Right?

And if that’s our only context for understanding racism, then surely someone thinking I’m racist just because I’m White is racism!

Yet it seems that we’ve come to a place where the single worst thing that we can be called, the single insult that most enrages us, is suggestion that we might actually be racist.

And I get it – because I have said and thought every single one of those things.

But what troubles me most in all of this is that we are so invested in proving that people of Color are “more racist” than we are or that we’re not racist, we are more upset by allegations that we might be racist than about the very real ways that racism plays out in the society around us.

I see my fellow White people so wrapped up in defending the idea that systemic racism doesn’t exist that we are unable to empathize with the real pain caused to people of Color by racism, both interpersonal and systemic.

For goodness sake, even the McKinney police admitted Eric Casebolt was out of line in assaulting a young Black girl for legally observing his actions, yet White people in my life were trying so hard to explain how the officer was in the right and how this “isn’t racial.”

All of this leaves me wondering about the roots of our defensiveness to admitting that racism is alive and well.

Why are we so resistant to acknowledging the countless examples of our racial privilege?

What do we risk by actually empathizing with people of Color and acknowledging how racial oppression plays out in our society?

Almost every White person I know at least claims to live by a strong set of values, and I rarely meet people whose core values say that it’s good for people of Color to be treated as second class citizens.

I don’t think I personally know anyone who believes that their core values sanction their participation in the hurting of other people.

And yet both systemic and interpersonal racism hurt people. Racism destroys lives.

So how is it that we can live more fully into the values that so many of us claim to hold when we’re defensive about whether we might be benefitting from racism?

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On Defensiveness: Breathe, Listen, Reflect

I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about this week, especially since a lot of the topics I really care about are being covered by really awesome authors elsewhere.  But this one thing keeps coming up for me in my discussions with friends and family.


So I figure now’s as good a time to write about it as any.

Last week I got into a rather silly facebook argument about the level of snark and pretentiousness in a film review article that my friend wrote.  I thought the people who read the article as dead serious were missing his point, and, especially knowing the author, I feel strongly that he’s using pretension to mock pretentiousness in film criticism.  I found it hilarious.

My friends didn’t.  They found it snarky and rude.  So we went round and round about what we thought the tone of the article actually was and what the article accomplishes in turn.

And we were assholes.  I found the ways that I was being talked to demeaning and frustrating, but to be fair, I started it.  In my frustration, I was incredibly rude.

Then one of the folks I was arguing with said this to me in a private message: “You sounded very ‘mansplainy’ like we just weren’t smart enough to get it and that’s why we were offended by something we shouldn’t be offended by.”

DefensivenessIf I wasn’t defensive before, I got SUPER defensive in that moment.

I’m thinking, “Wait, WHAT?  So now I’m just a sexist, mansplainey asshole?  What a copout!”

I couldn’t help but feel like useless rhetoric about male sexism was being used because it would hit me, a man who tries to be pro-feminist, harder.

But then something simple happened.

The mail carrier knocked on the door, and my dog went bonkers.  I got her in control, and answered the door, signed for something, and came back.

That time allowed me to step back.  Then I took a deep breath, and I looked back over my comments.

I was being a jerk.

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