Most people understand that racism is wrong. However, it has become increasingly challenging for people to identify clear examples of racism in their daily lives, unless they are extreme. Few challenge the seemingly racist joke, the offhand remark dismissing an entire group, or the subtle behaviors that continue to put People of Color in a one-down position while reinforcing white people’s one-up position. Why are we so reluctant to speak? And what can we do about it?
Two factors play key roles in this silence. First, many of us simply do not know how to speak up in a way that makes a difference. On the one hand, no matter how much we want to believe that silence is neutral, it actually implies agreement, perpetuating the belief that the jokes, comments, and putdowns are OK. Our failure to speak up when hearing a racist joke or comment, is a form of collusion that reinforces the racism of the speaker. On the other hand, condemning others for racism rarely inspires them to a change of heart, but rather drives their mindsets and behaviors underground.
The challenge is to speak up in a way that expresses a different point of view — clearly conveying your opposition to the racist statement — in a manner that respects the person behind the remark or gesture. The message here is not “you are a bad person” but rather “I don’t agree with what you just said, and I personally find it offensive.” It is particularly powerful for white people, who benefit from the privileged status given them by systemic racism, to express the personal impact such statements make on them.
The second factor in the “silence of collusion” is not grasping the pervasiveness of racism. Are you open to seeing all the ways in which whites and People of Color experience the world differently? Do you understand how deeply woven racist attitudes and assumptions are into our systems — and, by extension, into the thinking and experience of each person, ourselves included?
This goes far beyond the realm of racist jokes and comments. How many times have white people spoken approvingly of a Black colleague or public figure as “articulate,” as though an articulate Black person is the exception rather than the rule? How often are people surprised by the credentials of a Latina leader for the same reason? How often do white people simply assume that a Black acquaintance plays basketball, or a that an Asian colleague is good at math and science? How often do we hear comments that a Person of Color got the job just because she or he is a Person of Color? How often do we hear the same question raised when a white person gets a job or a promotion? How alert are we to the fact that African Americans get stopped by police many more times than whites, and the assumption often is that they are carrying drugs or doing something illegal? How many Latinas/Latinos are suspected of not being “Americans” and are questioned about their citizenship?
Many people have heard that these things happen. Some think they happened in days long gone — but they are wrong. Moreover, few white people think about how a month or a week of experiencing such behaviors can impact one’s day and one’s life. The challenge here is to deepen our awareness. We, as white people, must read widely across group identity lines, absorb alternative media, listen with full attention to those whose experience is different from ours, and put ourselves in situations where we are not the majority. We must have the conversation that starts with “what’s it like to be you?” (Without subsequently arguing that our experiences are “really all the same”). If we do this, we can stop making negative assumptions about people based on their identity group and start seeing how their experiences really do differ from our own. We can also start seeing each person as a unique individual, and the true similarities we have as humans.
Moreover, as we reorient ourselves in this way, we see more instances of racism more clearly. Perhaps, before reading this article, you never thought how the word articulate might affect a Black colleague; now, most likely, you will not be able to help noticing. As we see these myriad instances emerge, they deepen our conviction not only to see racism but to counter it as well. This conviction emboldens us to speak up against racism, hidden and overt, while our increased knowledge equips us to speak up convincingly. In what other ways do whites and People of Color see the world differently?
Can you provide examples of actions, words, or ideas that might appear innocent (like articulate) but carry racist overtones?
About the Author:
Judith H. Katz’s first book, White Awareness: A Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, was one of the first to discuss racism as having a negative impact not only on People of Color, but on white people as well. The book also clarified ways whites could take responsibility to address and eliminate racism.