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Abby L. Ferber

Abby L. Ferber

Posted: October 30, 2008 06:11 PM

I Am Racist!


There, I said it, "I am racist!" But more importantly, I am anti-racist.

It is fascinating watching the news these days, as one stunned white person after another expresses their surprise that racism is still so pervasive. On various news programs over the past few weeks, I have seen a parade of labor leaders, elderly white folks in Florida, and others, express their surprise over the racist comments they hear from their neighbors and co-workers. On the other hand, an African-American woman being interviewed explains that this comes as no surprise to black folks, they see this racism everyday.

That, my friends, is privilege...

One of the most significant features of privilege is that those who experience it do not have to think about it. We have the privilege of obliviousness. While those who experience oppression and inequality are confronted with this reality on a daily basis, those who experience privilege often do not see how it impacts their own lives. Whiteness becomes both invisible, and assumed as the norm. So, for example, whiteness comes to represent the average, normal, universal human condition. This is what makes it so easy for many people to see Obama as someone "not like them."

How much of a role race will play in this election is unknown; the fact that it will is not in dispute. In The New York Times, one elderly gentleman being interviewed in Pennsylvania expressed: "I'm no racist, but I'm not crazy about him either...I don't know, maybe 'cause he's black." Privilege allows us to be racist without realizing it.

Part of the problem is that we think of racism as an individual quality. We see racists as nasty people who march around with white hoods burning crosses. But this actually reinforces racism. We need to shift from using "racist" as a noun, to an adjective. The reality is that white folks are racist; how can we grow up in this culture and not internalize racism?

The task that faces us is not to try and identify who is or is not a racist, but to examine the many invisible ways in which racism and white privilege pervade our lives, our views, our assumptions, and our opportunities. The question is not are we racist, but are we anti-racist? What are we doing to recognize and undermine racism and privilege as it shapes our life, day in and day out? We need to strive to make racism more visible, more conscious. Only once it is conscious can we work to undermine it.

While individuals benefit from privilege, it is not the result of anything that one has done as an individual. It comes from our social identities. And we can't just put an end to the privilege we receive. I can't tell a third of the cab drivers to just pass me by, or ask the police to start pulling me over more often.

Peggy McIntosh's well-known essay "White Privilege and Male Privilege," first helped me to recognize the influence of privilege in my own life. She noted that white privilege includes being able to assume that most of the people you or your children study in school will be of the same race; being able to go shopping without being followed; never being called a credit to one's race, or having to represent one's entire race.

People of privilege often do not realize the extent to which inequality is still pervasive, and often embrace a color-blind approach. A color-blind perspective assumes that discrimination is a thing of the past, and denies the reality of race and racial inequality today. The bloggers at racism review explain this well. While many people naively embrace color-blindness as non-racist, it reinforces and reproduces contemporary racial inequality. A color-blind approach might be benign in a world where everyone truly was starting on an equal playing field. However, centuries of what sociologist Joe Feagin calls "undeserved impoverishment and undeserved enrichment," give some of us a huge head start and helping hands along the way (see Feagin's Racist America).

The current discussions about race and the election is helping many people to see the dangers of color-blindness, in a culture where "the current dominant frames don't support race-consciousness. Tim Wise has blogged astutely about the ongoing centrality of white privilege this campaign season. The final debate provided further examples. Imagine, for just one moment, a black candidate displaying the kind of angry outbursts and expressions displayed by John McCain. McCain is allowed far greater latitude in how he expresses himself. White men can display their anger in public; black men cannot.

Many articles and researchers have been talking about the unconscious ways in which race might shape how we vote. The reality is that race will be a factor in this presidential election. Race is always a factor in our society. How much race impacts the election will depend, in part, on our willingness to really see race and consciously strive to be anti-racist. The answer is not to ignore it, but to increase its visibility. Focus on it, examine it, understand it, dismantle it.

Yes, I am racist. But I am also anti-racist.