I signed up for a volunteer effort a few months ago. It’s an opportunity I was looking forward to. In conjunction with the program, I had to go through a five week training program with a group of two dozen other volunteers. Tuesday and Thursday evenings, zooming for two hours each night.
A couple of weeks ago, there were two sessions scheduled to cover cultural awareness and sensitivity. The Tuesday night session was two hours about how racist America is and how racist white people are. Among the statements that were made during that session were:
— all institutions are racist.
— racism requires power and authority, as a result, people of color cannot be racist.
— it is inevitable that white people will do racist things.
By the end of the two hours, I was pretty much convinced I wanted nothing to do with the volunteer assignment. Eventually, I sent an email to the organization, to the woman who was leading the training program, expressing my dismay at the session. I highlighted those three statements and provided these responses.
If all institutions are racist, does that mean that the NAACP is racist? Does it mean the organization I was going to volunteer for is racist? They are both “institutions.” She didn’t respond to that question, claiming that she had not made the statement I was referring to. Well, it’s in my notes is all I can say.
Until recently, racism did not require power and authority. It in fact, to practical reasonable minds still does not. Racism is taking action based on another person’s race. I provided the instructor with an example — when I go for runs or walks in my neighborhood, I keep my eyes on any teenage boys I see. I told her it would be racist if I only was concerned about African-American teenagers. I pointed out that such action did not involve any power or authority on my part. She disagreed and claimed that was prejudice.
During the session she tried to differentiate between prejudice, which she acknowledged all people have, and racism, which she claimed only white people could have. And this simply is not true. Racism, as it has been understood for decades, has always been a subset of prejudice. Just like sexism, ageism, and all the other isms. Racism is no different than any of those other prejudices. They do not require power for a person to have them or to act on them.
What I think is at play here is an effort to recast “racism” in a way that … simplifies it. All white people are and no people of color are. It makes for a much cleaner conversation when you can point to every white person and say “racist,” doesn’t it? Only, it’s just not true. Being a bigot, being a racist, does not require power or authority, and people of color are just as capable of racist attitudes and actions as us white folks.
I gave her the following additional example. My last boss was an Asian-American woman. In the 15 months I worked for her, it was very clear (clear enough for a lot of people to see it) that she favored Asian-American women in the work place. They can get away with more than others can, there is a different standard. And that is racism … from a person of color.
What about that last statement I identified above — it is inevitable that all white people will do racist things — isn’t that, all by itself, a racist statement?
At the conclusion of my email to the instructor, I told her I had no interest in being a part of an organization that considered me a racist simply because I am white. Interestingly enough, while she pushed back on some of the feedback I provided, nothing in her response pushed back on that concluding comment. So, I guess she does think I’m racist simply because I’m white.
On the right-side of the political debate, we have a bunch of people who refuse to acknowledge that racism remains a problem in this country. They simply refuse to recognize it as a continuing problem and want nothing to do with assisting in addressing the problem — since, in their world, it doesn’t actually exist.
Meanwhile, on the left, we are seeing a years and decades long effort to reframe the debate, to change the meaning of words and concepts, to make the problem far worse than it actually is. And also to absolve persons of color of their own contributions to the problem. I simply cannot accept the notion that people of color cannot be racist and that all white people are. It is just another example of how people rely on generalizations to fuel their views. Generalizations make things easy. They’d rather do that than do the hard work of individualized, reality-based analysis. And I’m just kind of done with it.