Understanding that you, too, are racist (even if you’re one of the “good ones”)

Within the past 24 hours, I have had several exchanges that brought me back down to Earth and reminded me that for many self-professed white allies, their knowledge of racism is still rather rudimentary. It’s more of a head exercise that hasn’t quite gravitated downward to the heart and shaken them to their core.

As I have written many times before in this space, for many white Americans, Trump’s win was a wake-up call of sorts. Kind of like the first alarm before you hit the snooze button. For the liberal, white progressive or the white moderates as Martin Luther King Jr. referred to them in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the goal has almost never been about achieving the type of racial equity that acknowledges that America’s prosperity was bought and paid for with the land, blood, bodies and souls of Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) and that continued oppression and marginalization of both groups has been a mainstay of maintaining the America status quo. Nor has the goal or effort been to really sit with that reality and look at what is truly necessary to right 400-plus years of such immense wrong. (Hint: It’s more than a free college education and some feel-good moments with diverse faces at the table.)

A deep dive is what is needed, yet for many white people they simply want to bob and float and splash at the surface or in the shallow end. They want to focus on surface-level, feel-good moments around race—videos of the occasional police officer showing random kindness to a Black person or a Black person doing a heroic act or a white ally standing up for a person of color being harassed in a store or whatever. Or to focus on the accomplishment of getting our first Black president—of course, both the fact we got a Black president (freaking out much of white America) and the fact that so many white liberals and moderates thought that was a moment that made us “post-racial” is also what gave us the current awful occupant of the White House.

Too many white people, while horrified by the extrajudicial killings of Black bodies and the blatant racism coming out of the Trump administration, refuse to understand that their very whiteness has allowed them to be co-conspirators in the system of white supremacy—that to be born white is to inherit the blood of white supremacy. Personal kindness toward Black people and other non-white people doesn’t erase that. To be born and raised as a white person is to be racist. Full stop.

That’s a hard one to swallow but the type of transformation that we need is a critical mass of white people who understand this. We need a majority of white people to understand that their good feelings and good deeds towards BIPOC—without frequent reflections on lingering racism in themselves and without a commitment to systemic, societal change—only helps to keep the system of white supremacy alive. As my colleague and collaborator, author Debby Irving, says: She spent 20 years on diversity committees in educational and community spaces with no real analysis around race. With no understanding that her good fortunes in life were built on the backs of others. The same system that allowed her relatives access to Harvard and upward mobility (and to pass that on to other family members), also worked systematically to prevent others who were not white from having those opportunities.

Even in anti-racism work, there is a tendency with white organizers to see themselves differently; to see themselves as better and more enlightened than the “other white people.” Not wanting to deal with the Trump supporters and others of that ilk—but, are they not white people like you? If you don’t work with your more actively racist people and, yes, other such white people are your people (your neighbors, mentors, peers, colleagues, family and more), who exactly is ever going to work with them? Do you feel this is the work of Black and other non-white people? No, it’s not. Your very whiteness allows you a certain level of access that I or other non-white people will never see nor should we. The emotional labor required on that task shouldn’t be our job when we are drowning in racist systems and behaviors on the daily already.

Which is why loving, good feelings toward other people regardless of race don’t change the impact or the system. As we often say in movement spaces, it’s intent versus impact. Your intentions may be all good and well, but the impact can still be harmful.

It’s the same type of harmful impact that has many in this current dialogue on reparations suggesting that tax credits or free college education could be the answer in dealing with racial inequity.

The data are clear that often Black people with college degrees fare worse than white people with only a high school diploma. Black women with advanced degrees have higher mortality rates than white women without a high school diploma. High-earning Black people are still targeted for discrimination when it comes to home ownership. We have access to enough data to know that overall, being a college-educated Black person does not afford you the same access or protection that it gives to white counterparts of a similar demographics. We also know that more and more Black Americans, particularly Black women, are already well educated—so how is paying for our continued educations going to change anything when the ones we paid for ourselves still don’t allow us to catch a break?

Erasing the student debt or paying for the education of Black people is but a drop in the bucket when the real problem is the current infrastructure and system that favors white people. When white people refuse to see that and understand how their seeming benevolence fuels this system, nothing changes.

Look, being told that being white means you harbor racism (in certain thoughts, in certain actions, in certain benefits you reap without hesitation, in certain preconceptions, etc.) is not a slur or necessarily even a judgment against you. Telling you that being white is to be racist on some level is a statement of fact. White people have blind spots when it comes to racism; even white people in loving and intimate relationships with people of color can fall prey to the seductive allure of whiteness and wanting to uphold a system of standards that decided hundreds of years ago what is right and who is wrong and made white people the center and the standard by which to judge that.

If you are going to become offended when you are confronted with this knowledge and told that you can’t claim you “don’t have a racist bone in your body” or that you harbor racism (whether you want to or not) simply from being white in a white supremacist society, you are part of the problem. If your first response is to get defensive and rattle off your racial justice bonafides, that should be a red flag that you need to sit with it and ask why are you pushing back so hard.

Look, we have a lot of work ahead of us and if you are truly down for change, we are playing the long game. The goal isn’t to assimilate enough Black folks and other POC into this unjust system. It should be to eventually dismantle the entire system and build something better.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

15 thoughts on “Understanding that you, too, are racist (even if you’re one of the “good ones”)”

  1. I am a white, straight, woman who has worked in Information Technology for 20+ years. Most of my peers are now either Directors, VPs, or such. I do not smoke cigars, I do not play golf, I do not enjoy beer or the typical “things” that make “friends” and get you ahead in the world of IT in America. I am also not subservient, and will stand up for myself and others when I see an injustice. This is something that looked at as a plus of you are a Man, but as a woman I am just a Bitch. I am routinely told I am to bossy, I need to be nicer, I need to learn how to present myself nicer, but yet I can be in a meeting with a Man who will do the exact same thing or worse, and be cheered for it. This has been done to me at multiple workplaces (yes I have tried the HR route) and it is frustrating and disappointing. Now, I can leave my job, find new work, relieve my constant daily injusticeies, but what does that get me? They win, I loose a good income, and they get rid of one more woman in STEM.

    My point? I cannot imagine someone doing something horrible to me just because of my skin color, something I shouldn’t have to change or hide or be ashamed of. People in general are small minded, they can only see the spec in front of them, and they dont want to know where they came from, or where they are going. They dont care about the best way to get there is because they are to afraid of change they are paralyzed in their same small world. They are threatened by intelligence, knowledge, change and world views.
    I feel for anyone who has been bullied or put down, be it for your race, lack of education, sex, disability or and other number of things humanity seems to dream up next.

    • You managed to center this discussion around yourself as a white woman while missing the point of the article entirely. “People in general” is YOU. They are US. It’s not enough to tisk at the small-mindedness of others. We must work to address and confront racism in ourselves and others, and saying you “feel for” the BIPOC without acknowledging your own role in their suffering and the benefits you have reaped as a result is disingenuous.

  2. I have caught myself many times in the past holding an expectation of being excused for my own whiteness simply for saying the right magic words. I’ve realized that there can’t be any sort of emotional capitalism. The goal is dismantling systemic racism rather than earning myself any social capital with non whites. I agree with you. Even those who actively challenge racism will still reap benefits from it whether they admit it or not, and this denial is problematic as hell. I do not have white guilt. I have a sense of social obligation and you’re completely right about it being my job to absolve racism because I was given a seat from which my voice is louder to racists, and if I’m not aware of my own thoughts, I can’t call anybody out for their bullshit.
    I just wanted to comment because I understand that I have no right to expect anything from you for being one of the good ones. The expectation is on me. Society put this ball in my court. Being an ally isn’t about earning a pass for my whiteness. It’s about dismantling systemic racism, reindigenizing, and decolonizing. And that’s the reward in and of itself. I only commented because, if dumb ass white people comment dumb nonsense I don’t want that to be all the feedback you get because you’re freaking solid and valid and well spoken and right and I’ll fight for you whether you like me or not cuz it ain’t about me. I’m wary as I type this that putting energy into letting you know I hear you could just be virtue signally and that the whole point of this post is to direct my energy toward racism itself rather than to dismissing my participation to BIPOCs when speaking of racism. That’s not my intention. I’m not acknowledging anything for opinion points. I’m doing it because it’s sort of an obligation. I should probably wash the blood off your hands before I ever attempt to wash it off mine. I don’t always know how I’ll come off to non whites, and I don’t want to be problematic but still have so much to learn. That’s why I appreciate your candor. Thank you. I’m recovering from homelessness and broke. I’m in the red, so this is the only support I can show

  3. Thank you Shay for today’s post. I confess with humility that I fit the stereotype self-congratulatory white liberal who felt Obama was ushering in a new lasting era. I was raised in the 1960s in what I have until recently thought was a very liberal/progressive household and, though during the 1990s/00s, I participated in numerous “white privilege” and “diversity” “trainings” through volunteer groups and work, I never saw my upbringing/family as racist; throughout these well-meaning workshops/trainings, self-examination touched only the surface of privilege. I know this now though I also realize that at the time, I thought I was truly taking in the lessons of understanding white privilege. Now recalling my upbringing, I am saddened by the missed opportunities to even question the status quo let alone work against systemic discrimination (for example, I realize that my parents likely would have read the NY Times opinion piece in April 1965 by Kenneth Clark -The Delusion of the White Liberal -https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1965/04/04/98456959.pdf and though I remember dinner table conversations about what a good man MLK was, we didn’t discuss let alone do anything about how wrong it was to have housing “projects” in the middle of our suburban city -just one example). Since the election, I feel like I’ve been seeing things again for the first time and as your post so succinctly states, it’s so key to keep the deep dive going and getting on board for the long haul.

  4. OMFG. This is a stunning piece of writing with a Bam-to-the-heart reminder of the message for me… I know I have to work with white people. And I hate it. But systems will not change without my dedication to change. Thank you for this.

  5. I am white, and I am racist, and learning to understand my racism. I heard someone say recently, if a person has cancer, that does not mean they are pro-cancer, and likewise, if a person is racist, that does not mean they want it there, but it’s there anyways, and it must be dealt with. I’m still learning to deal with it, and I’ve been talking about it with a lot of other white people, so thank you for not giving up hope on that “critical mass of white people who understand this”. I hope we get to that critical mass in our lifetimes.

  6. I’m with you on all but calling involuntary beneficiaries of white privilege racists. There are people who promote this racist system and those who may not comprehend it, and then there’s those who do see it and do work to dismantle it who are white. Who do work with family members and coworkers and friends. These are meaningful distinctions. A racist has to be defined as one who appreciates and furthers white supremacy. Maybe call those who don’t want white supremacy but fail to appreciate their relationship to it in historical terms something else. Intentions have value. Impact is the most important thing, but in this phase of turning hearts, I can’t see why you’d reject intentions outright. It’s a step towards understanding. It’s a process. Far too slow, but tearing it down is faster than the process of building this system.

    • Disagree with latest comment. We are all racists; we swim in the ocean of racism. Approaching different people, with different levels of recognition or interest or intent is our work. We have to call racism, and white supremacy for what it is. As white people, it’s definitely who we are.

  7. Nah, not all white people harbour racism. That’s an objective, indisputable fact I’m afraid.

    Also look at the self hating white idiots in these comments. “Yes, I’m racist! Please like me, people of colour!” Speak for yourself and stop projecting YOUR racism onto many good, honest people. You may be racist. Most white people aren’t. Again, objective, indisputable fact.

  8. I love reading pieces like this because it confirms my decision to walk away from the lunatic left, who are so obsessed with this poisonous “wokeness”, this religion of victimology rooted in Ressentiment that marks every white person with the original sin of “white privilege”, this bigotry of low expectations that expects nothing of black people and their agency and accountability for their own actions, this anti white racial hatred from non-whites in a country that is not oppressing them at all, this pathetic white masochism that preys on weak white liberal women who wallow in guilt and pathological altruism.

    Sis, you think you’re “oppressed” living in Maine? “Take several seats” indeed.

    Enjoy my “white tears” shed from “white fragility” all you want, but I have zero white guilt. Zero. It’s okay to be white. It’s okay to be a white man, even. Unapologetically huwhite.

    • Hi Zero White Guilt: what compelled you to reply, if it’s really ok to be “unapologetically huwhite”? It doesn’t sound like you’ve been able to walk away from the left at all. In fact Everything you wrote in that paragraph actually applies to you. Get a therapist, and good luck.

  9. Okay, I’ve read many articles that have said similar things, but no one ever provides solutions as to “what’s next.” I agree that there are systemic infrastructures that have been / are in place that create inequalities between black and white people. As a middle class white man, working as an employee at a typical job, what can I do to go beyond the surface “float and splash” activities the author suggests? How, specifically, can I do anything that changes infrastructures and causes the “deep dive” critical mass that the author wants? I strive everyday to treat and love everyone equally and to continue to question my culturally formed biases, but those would be considered shallow deeds according to the author. “…without frequent reflections on lingering racism in themselves and without a commitment to systemic, societal change”, what does that even mean for the average person? How does a commitment to systemic, societal change translate into action for a white, middle-class person? I can’t change hiring practices, loan approvals, legal injustices, where and how people live, etc., so how can I do anything that is considered a deep dive? Even if I become “shaken to the core” in my heart, what’s next? Seeing a need and wanting radical change in culture and infrastructures is admirable, but a call for the average person to simply admit and reflect that “I’m a racist” will change nothing. Like many articles like this before, this author focuses on history and labels, but not tangible, real-life, actions that can accompany change. When can we get to that point?

    • There are many things you can do, but a key place to start is to work with like minded people and organizers who can assist you with working on these larger systemic pieces in your community. A great resource is the national group SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), they have chapters across the United States.

      • I will look into the SURJ in my area, thanks for the suggestion. Even if I’m able to become involved, wouldn’t I fit into the category of people that was suggested in the first paragraph. In reality, relatively few people can or will join groups like SURJ. Between full-time work, kids school activities, and other things such as church, dedicating time to organizations such as SURJ will be prohibitive. It seems to me that the best way to promote healing and equality is for people to build relationships with one another so that we can empathize better and work together. To do this, we need to engage in the one-on-one relationships. This, along with the efforts of organized groups will slowly change a culture = voting block = policies. If we keep focusing on labeling people with derogatory terms such as racist, will that promote one-to-one relationships and healing (even if the label is true?) Instead of shock value, wouldn’t it be better at this point to encourage people in unity, and the small victories instead of drawing lines in the sand? As a Christian, if I keep telling my child – you’re a sinner, you’re a sinner, you’re a sinner even though I see you making some small efforts at doing it right – you’re a sinner. I would suspect my child would grow up to resent me and move away from valued beliefs I have. Yes, the child needs to know what sin is, however if done with a loving, growth-mindset attitude, they will most likely embrace the same values down the road. I know this is easy for me to say due to the fact that I’m not daily effected by inequality, however I desire for healing and eliminating racism and am afraid it might slide backwards if the message isn’t conveyed carefully.

Comments are closed.