I’ve spent a good deal of the Trump administration trying to help white folks on the internet understand three things:
They are definitely racist...
… which doesn’t mean they’re racist on purpose...
… but THAT DOESN’T MEAN they’re excused from learning about how to stop being racist and actively work against racism, starting right the fuck now.
I think of these 3 lessons as “white people teaching anti-racism… and tonic.” It can be a complicated cocktail to mix and if you get the ratio wrong it’s too bitter, too sweet, or too watered down.
The bitter part:
You are definitely 100% racist, which is the worst thing I’ve ever said to you but it’s absolutely true and there’s no way around it. You voted for Trump? You’re racist. You’re racist because he’s proudly racist and that wasn’t a dealbreaker for you. You voted for Hillary? You’re still racist. Because we’re all racist. All of us.
The sweet part:
I know you didn’t pick racism. I know you didn’t special order it because you thought it was just so you. Honey, I’m not saying you’re a monster! I know you don’t actively hate people of color. I don’t either! I know it can be scary and shameful to learn about your role in racism. I know you weren’t trying to hurt anybody. I know you’re just trying to do the best you can.
And here’s the part you can’t water down:
Now that you know that you’re racist, you have to actually do stuff about your racism. Like, real stuff. Like, right now. With your money. And your time. And your reputation. And your family and friends and voice and hands and choices and votes.
A lot of people choke hard on the bitter part and think they’re going to die from the burning. Or they get hung up on the sweet part and add so much syrup they can’t taste the bitter anymore.
Or they add so much fucking ice to this cocktail that they can’t feel a thing, and when the ice melts they’re like hey, look at that, I had a conversation about racism and I feel fine! I must be GREAT at not being racist. Am I done now?
None of those people learn anything about themselves and they remain racist, but this time it’s on purpose.
But some people do begin to learn! Those people get used to saying those three things to themselves: “I’m racist, but accidentally, but that’s still racist and it hurts people. Now I have to stop making excuses and start being not racist so I stop hurting people.”
A lot of people spend a lot of years walking themselves through this process over and over again:
I have racist instincts and biases. I didn’t choose them! But now that I’m aware of them, I have a responsibility to choose better.
Hey, look at that! I’m going to tell this black man that a lot of white women didn’t vote for Trump! Hey, wait a sec… I’m getting a little Whitey-Spidey-sense…
I think I just whitesplained. Oh shit. I did. I whitesplained. I didn’t mean to!
Buuuuuut what I meant to do doesn’t really matter. I rushed to defend white character instead of acknowledging harm caused by racism, and now I’m blocked on Twitter.
Okay. That’s okay, girl. Dust yourself off and do better next time. You are, after all, a recovering racist.
I’ve been trying to disarm the word “racist” so white people don’t fly into racisteria when I use it to describe them. When I tell people that they’re racist, I want them to hear exactly what I’m saying: You (and I!) are members of a racist society and in your role as white in that society, you have benefited from the pain, labor, oppression, and erasure of people of color.
I want them to stop hearing what I did NOT SAY. I did NOT SAY, “You are a Klansman! You are a murderer! You are a Nazi! You would have pepper sprayed the Freedom Riders! You’re a MONSTER WITH EVIL IN YOUR HEART!!!” Nope. I didn’t say that. Racism is more complicated and chameleonic than that. If the only racists out there were the ones in white hoods and armbands, we’d be in great fucking shape.
I said that you’re part of our world, and I said it in such a way that it sounded like, “Look, you’re racist. I am, too. It’s not a death sentence. We can start changing now.” I said it the way you tell people that you know how to get red wine out of silk. “Whoops! Hey, look at that, you’ve got a spill. No, girl, listen, I’ve totally done that before. It’s fixable. I know how. Listen to me. We’ve got this.”
Lately I’ve been aware of how much work I’ve been doing to try to ease white folks’ transition from happy ignorance to responsible awareness, while carefully avoiding any insinuation of actual complicity.
This is the story of white people teaching other white people about anti-racism, or at least it’s the story of this white woman teaching other white people about anti-racism, and slipping.
It’s well-intentioned (and that’s not a compliment).
It’s clumsy, exceedingly kind, and focused at least as much on appearing to be anti-racist as it is on impactful anti-racism. It’s gentler than it should have to be. It values the feelings of racists over the lives of the oppressed. It extends grace beyond a reasonable measure. It believes that people who remain willfully obtuse about their own biases just need more love. Just grew up in a different time. Just had a hard childhood.
I’m still far too gentle for the wrong reasons, namely that as soon as I take my hand off the wheel, my own still-racist self veers right back to trying to protect white folks from the harm they’ve done to people of color.
It’s too easy for me to remember the shame I felt when I realized all the ways I’d hurt people out of ignorance and carelessness, entitlement to their spaces and conversations and cultures; I do have an instinct to comfort other people through the shame that I felt. I tell myself it’s because I want them to stick it out and keep learning so they’ll stop hurting people, but it’s also because I wanted someone to comfort me too when I was hurting because I was looking, for the first time, at the things I’d said and done.
So here I am, talking to, you know, Cassie on Twitter about how she should read this great article and follow this amazing group and I’m here to talk anytime! Stay open to learn, girl! I know it’s hard but it’s worth it, because we are all racist but we can all do better! You’ve got this!
Sweet Cassie, I’m not calling you a monster! I’m saying you’re racist because society is racist! I can feel her relax. I’m not judging her. I’m just like her.
It’s easy to live right here, sipping the too-sweet, too-cold drink I didn’t mix well enough. It doesn’t taste good; I’m just used to it. I’m comfortable. I’m comfortably, definitely not a monster in an icky society that I totally think should get its anti-racism together ASAP!
(This is white people teaching other white people anti-racism. Or at least, this is me, fucking up, whitefully.)
Racist is… listen, it’s a process! Just do your best, sweetie.
Meanwhile, we are weathering a weeklong category-5 racist hurricane in which Trump has, in the space of one week:
told women of color to go back to where they came from because they don’t have the right to criticize America;
taken a solid 15 second nose-breathing break to stand, in the manner of a shitweasel, in front of a crowd that chanted “send her back” of a naturalized United States citizen;
attacked a predominantly black city with accusations of being overrun with vermin and being a place that “no human being would live;” (Wait, I thought we weren’t supposed to criticize America though…)
tweeted his support of Voter ID laws that are historically, chronically, without exception designed to suppress black and brown voters.
AND MORE PROBABLY. WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE. WHO EVEN KNOWS.
Donald Trump is fucking racist. And when I call Donald Trump a racist, I am FOR SURE calling him a monster. This man is responsible for the deaths of children. This man is an unfit, inhuman despot. He is an ignorant, cruel, hellbound murderer.
Meanwhile, we’ve still got nice people arguing, more weakly every time, that just because you voted for Trump in 2016 doesn’t make you racist! Except that it does. Except you voted for a man who has kept only one promise. the promise that he made every single day before you voted for him, and that was to hurt, humiliate, belittle, and expel as many people of color as he could. And that was fine with you. Therefore, you are racist. You didn’t care about people of color. You are racist. And you’re the monster kind of racist.
Racist is fucking unacceptable, full stop.
Okay, wait… quick question.
So, sometimes when I say “You’re racist,” it means, “Hey, me too! Come join our support group! We’re reading Ijeoma’s book this month!”
And other times, when I say “You’re racist,” it means, “Get the fuck out of America you xenophobic hemorrhoid.”
How is the same word both an acceptance and a rejection?
Well, it’s a matter of degrees, right? We all know what makes Cassie on Twitter or Katie on the Blog different from Donald Trump in the White House, right? Right? I’m not like him! I mean, I’m racist (so is Cassie!) but I’m not an enthusiastic, outspoken, unapologetic racist who goes out of his way to orchestrate the malicious murders of children! I’m a racist who’s aware of her racism and trying to do better! See? See how I’m doing that?
There are degrees of racism, or perhaps volumes at which one projects, or whispers, or even mimes one’s racism. Right?
I’m getting Whitey-Spidey-sense.
I’m afraid that in trying to disarm the word racist, I’ve been wishy-washy about what racism really is and does.
Racism does this. It does THIS POST.
A racist makes solid, logical-sounding arguments to keep racism fine -- well, not FINE-fine, but normal, an expected state of being for nice white folks in America, something that we can explore in safe spaces while checking in on each other’s self-esteem. Racism wants to take the bitterness out of the cocktail. It wants you to forget that the reason you’re even talking about racism is because people are suffering and dying, incarcerated, disenfranchised. Racism wants you to slide over the fact that you still — still — don’t always see those people as people at all.
“We’re all racist,” depending on how you say it, could mean, “We are all complicit,” or “Well, it can’t be that bad. We’re still friends with the Hendersons, aren’t we?” or “Shoot, honey, don’t be so hard on yourself! Nobody’s perfect!”
When I tell someone, “Racism is in all of us,” I have to make sure I follow that up with, “And none of it is acceptable,” or it comes across as a verbal shrug, as if my dehumanization of other people is my humanizing flaw, my dishes in the sink, my long lawn. As if it makes me more relatable. That’s unacceptable. It’s also what happens, over and over again, to recovering racists. Somehow, we find ways to make our racism a testament to our moral bravery. We are good people! Not like those monsters.
I’m afraid that in drawing an arbitrary line between me and Donald Trump, I’m creating unearned grace for myself. The fact is that he and I are ripples on the same pond. I hate how easily I understand why he’s effective, even as I can’t comprehend ever agreeing with his rhetoric. I hate that I look like someone who’d vote for him. I hate how close we really, truly are to each other.
I extend grace to Cassie on Twitter because I see myself in both her racism and her humanity, and choose to embrace her humanity while soothing her racism like a boo-boo on my child’s knee; I extend a fucking hammer to Donald Trump because I see myself in both his racism and his humanity, too, and it’s too fucking much, and I want to crush it, fast, so nobody recognizes me and we don’t have to talk about it.
“You’re not a monster, Cassie!”
“You’re a monster, Donald!”
It’s acceptance and rejection. It’s coddling and condemnation, and it’s an expression of the same fear:
I am like you; we are not beyond redemption, right?
You are like me; we are sketchy and fucked.
We are all racist. We all need to mow the grass. We are all, on some level, fine with this.
Nevertheless, I think it’s important to draw the lines between me and Donald Trump.
Is that instinct rooted in my latent racism that still demands I find someone worse than me to make myself look good? Maybe. Probably.
But that instinct is also rooted in the fact that if I say we are all the same, then I’m essentially drawing a chalk outline of racism. I am volunteering to be part of a body that is past resuscitation. I am resigning myself to a simple diagnosis.
But discussions about racism deserve more than crude outlines. They deserve Rembrandt’s brush strokes or Seurat’s dots of color and light, and not because we racists deserve another opportunity to explain ourselves or more, more, more chances to fuck up nicely.
Rather, because the people who’ve survived us deserve to be seen in their depth and fullness, regardless of whether they’ve survived Trump’s violence or mine, or yours, which are all completely different, and exactly the same.
If you liked this post, you may also like Deal or No Deal: Why White Women Vote for Turds!
Also, follow Real Talk: WOC & Allies for Racial Justice & Anti-Oppression, an anti-racism group run by WOC where you can find information, perspective, and top-notch anti-racism education, as well as calls to action where you can really support WOC, person to person.
Also! Check out the SWA Black Feminist Book Club! It’s a gorgeous space that amplifies black women and recommends kickass books by black women across all genres.
For the month of August I’ll be sending 50% of all Paypal contributions to Making Connections, a WOC-led mentorship group the creates access to higher education for first-generation American high school students.
(Full disclosure: I am a volunteer and an advisory board member for Making Connections.)