My journey from inner city Cleveland to the suburbs and then to a university where only 3% of the students were Black like me was a constant struggle. I seemed to always be grappling with maintaining a healthy relationship with the different forms of Whiteness by which I found myself surrounded.
At many points along that journey, white people became friends, teachers, or parts of other important relationships with me — relationships that, as time went by and microaggessions occurred, I increasingly realized needed to be navigated with a more contextual understanding of the racist system in which we were all partaking.
As that awareness grew, so did my understanding of my friends, teachers, and acquaintances complicity in racism. And as they were important to me, my attempts to share that understanding with them also increased.
But I regularly came up against strong resistance.
I can’t even estimate the many total hours I’ve spent trying to convince the white people in my life, especially the ones I deeply cared for, that they aren’t bad — even if they do benefit from and partake in racism.
I also wonder how many bad ones I’ve lied to in the process.
The conversation usually went something like this:
Me: White people need to stop doing racist things.
White person: Not all white people are bad.
Me: Well, not all white people are bad, but all white people need to stop doing racist things.
White person: But I’m not racist!
Me: All white people benefit from racism and can be racist. That doesn’t mean you are a bad person, necessarily. But you can be.
White person: I’m a good person who loves Black people. I’m not racist!
Me: No one is saying you’re not a good person, but you need to take responsibility for how racism continues to exist. You can be a good person and do that.
White person: I’m not racist, so why is that my responsibility?
And back and forth until, almost always, we’d reached an impasse. I was exhausted and they were just as committed to the idea of having nothing to do with racism as before.
This isn’t to say white people don’t have the capacity to understand how racism is a system that they all benefit from and perpetuate both consciously and unconsciously. I have enough white friends remaining who do understand this and behave accordingly.
But after so many failures in having this conversation, I had to ask myself why it was so unproductive. As I learned more about how racism functions and how elaborately it works to reproduce itself, I came to understand that part of the answer is this conversation often reinforces the same racism it is meant to address.
Notice how the white person in the example engages the truth of “white people need to stop doing racist things” with a statement, not a question, demanding your acceptance of their defensiveness for racism before even acknowledging the problem of racism.
They become the focus of the conversation rather than racism itself — much less my experience of the racism.
“I’m not racist!” refocuses the discussion on white people, white feelings, and the necessity of white innocence, while derailing conversations about how racism works on a structural level.
You can’t even talk about racism before white people are confident that their guilt is absolved.
Responding in order to quell their defensiveness sometimes suggests their defensiveness deserves quelling at the expense of a real conversation about racism and your energy. In order to move the conversation forward, I had to implicitly say, “You being a good person is a prerequisite acknowledgment for having a conversation about why people like me are dying.”
Not to mention, a comprehensive response, one that acknowledges their participation in racism, still requires their implication — which is often the reason for defensiveness in the first place.
Accepting participation in something as horrible as racism is understandably upsetting, so defensiveness is expected. But, if they truly aren’t bad people as they say, they’ll have to deal with it – not us. Here are 3 reasons why.
1. “I’m Not Racist” Is A Form Of White Fragility
Over the past year, I’ve been receiving a lot of pushback from friends and family over my writings and teachings on race.
“I’m not racist,” or “my partner is not racist,” is something I hear a lot, usually absent a specific charge on my part about them or their partner at all — funny how folks try on shoes when they fit.
I love these people, so I invested a lot into trying to convince them they can still be loved and recognize their place in a racist system at the same time — over and over again. It was as if they thought by them being racist they couldn’t be loved, and they just couldn’t get past that.
In a typical display of white fragility — the derailing and gaslighting responses white people have to even the most minimal of racial stress — many of these friends conflated “racist” with “bad person.”
This forced me to deal with an issue that wasn’t even being discussed, and to privilege its importance in comparison to what was being discussed — the problem of racism.
This stems not just from the unnuanced way we see “racist” to mean “completely bad,” but also the inability to own up to being able to do bad things.
Once I understood white fragility and gaslighting, I knew that this was exactly what was happening to me. My friend saying “I’m not racist” was an attempt to overwrite the reality I knew of how racism works. I knew that you can’t deny being racist if you participate in a racist system.
You can’t deny participating in a racist system if you insist on making racism conversations about how you are not implicated.
Explaining white fragility may or may not help move the conversation along, but it does make clear why their defensiveness does not automatically and always warrant your reassurance of their innocence.
2. Systematic Racism Is Not Less Important Than Individual Racism
When a person says “I’m not racist,” they’re only acknowledging racism on an individual level, which is not always the issue. Individual prejudices lose their power when not reinforced by a system that legitimizes those prejudices.
For example, I am predisposed to view all larger men as potential threats, especially when I’m alone and it’s dark. But I generally have nothing to use to defend myself from them except for distance and awareness — so it’s hard to see how my views or individual prejudices might substantially harm them.
The power dynamic might appear different, however, if systemic infrastructures, cultural values, economy, and media not only worked to corroborate my belief about large, lone men, but were also dependent on it.
Now, let’s imagine that I was a cop, and that I viewed all Black boys as potential threats. In this situation, I have a gun, a badge, a judicial system, and a nation of people with similar values backing me. And those “threatening” Black boys, they often have nothing, and definitely not as much power as me as an officer.
In the case of Mike Brown, Darren Wilson’s prejudicial view of him as a “monster” ended in the way it often does with similar situations involving Black citizens and cops — fatally for the unarmed Brown and with no consequences for the officer.
This difference in power and in who benefits from it is the real insidiousness of racism, and no one person lacking individual prejudice is going to stop it.
White people still benefit. Having their violence go unexplored when young white men commit the vast majority of mass shootings is just one example of what that privilege looks like. And people of color are still harmed (though in different ways from one another).
White people who forcefully shift necessary conversations about racism to center their lack of individual prejudices (which is probably not the case anyway) are promoting the lie that individual prejudices are what cause oppression.
The fact that they benefit from and perpetuate racism is bad, but refusing to acknowledge it is worse.
This conversation seems designed to only address the issue of white people benefiting from and perpetuating racism, and often I fell into the trap of trying to deal with their defensiveness around that rather than making clear defensiveness itself is the problem.
This shouldn’t be a conversation about whether or not the person to whom you are talking is bad, but about how their misunderstanding of what it means to be “bad” is the problem.
3. White People Must Acknowledge Their Propensity To Be Racist To Combat White Supremacy
Centering on the idea that what is “bad” needs to be reevaluated opened many doors for me. A white person benefitting and perpetuating racism is bad, but denying involvement means no steps can be taken to end it, which is worse.
White people need to not only acknowledge this, but also acknowledge how it allows them to do terrible things, including to hold basic prejudices or discriminate, often without even knowing. Accepting this is the first step to avoiding those things in the future, and we don’t have to discourage them from taking that step just so that their feelings can stay intact.
Part of the function of oppression is that it reinforces the idea that being a part of or doing something harmful is the end of the world, discouraging ownership of any past, present, or future mistakes.
But white people being racist isn’t the end of the world – though too many haven’t, many people of color have survived them being so.
However, refusing to accept their own racism and to change is ending the worlds of children of color every day.
Most white people know racism is not okay, but need also know that actively rectifying and working to challenge racism within themselves is okay.
I’m learning to more effectively offer space for people to make mistakes while calling for them to do better without ignoring the consequences for those mistakes.
Even if they do not consciously discriminate, all white people participate in a racist system. There can be no ending that system without accepting this fact and moving forward from it.
Hari Ziyad is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a Brooklyn-based storyteller. They are the Editor in Chief of RaceBaitR, a space dedicated to imagining and working toward a world outside of the white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalistic gaze, and their work has been featured on Gawker, The Guardian, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire, and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can find them (mostly) ignoring racists on Twitter @RaceBaitR and Facebook.