What White People Don’t Understand About Racism

Racism begins with believing that race is a valid means of categorizing people. That is the heart of racism.

“Two Boy” by Elizabeth Olds (c.1935-1943), part of the WPA Collection

My Racist Relative

I asked a relative of mine why she only invited her white coworkers to regular gatherings at her house. She was confused. Why would she invite them? They’re black, they want to be with black people, and white people want to be with white people. She was sputtering and irritated, not understanding why I would even think to ask such a thing. I got the impression she’d never considered why she did it that way. It wasn’t as if she made a conscious choice to exclude every non-white coworker. Her own racism was invisible to her as it was so normal in her environment. She claims, of course, that she isn’t racist, and was livid at the suggestion that they was anything wrong with not inviting her black coworkers. She also is the type to complain how ‘everything is racist these days’. In her mind it’s enough to be friendly with non-white people. That is what not being racist is to her. Passing them over for promotion, not inviting them to social events, excluding them from meetings with other white coworkers, all of this is fine in her eyes.

Please Wake Up, White People

If you’ve ever tried to wake up a sleepwalking person you’ll know how confused and angry they become, sometimes extremely so. If someone is invested in something being real and you show them it isn’t, they will fight you and rage at you and otherwise try to defend their perceptions as real, even if they’re literally dreaming at the time. It takes a mature and courageous person to accept their previous confusion and wake up calmly to what is well and truly real.

What Racism Actually Is

All racism arises from the basic lie that race is both real and meaningful. Once a person invests in the saliency of race they begin to interpret other races as a group, which inevitably leads to negative sentiment. To believe human beings are fundamentally and meaningfully separated by race is to necessarily dehumanize other races by degree. The white person interacting with a non-white person believes they are with someone who is — and forever will be — different from them, and so they treat them as different, as non-human, as lacking something that the white person has. This denies the essential and complete humanity of the non-white person. Racism begins with a belief in race. This is the seed of racism.

Race Isn’t Real, So What Is Real?

When I say ‘people of other races’, don’t take this as an implicit belief in the realness of race. People are real, and attributes like skin color are real and measureable. The concept of race, however, is imagined and attached to other real things, but is not itself a real thing. A pine tree and a willow have different forms of branches — that is real — but to believe that one is a tree while the other isn’t, or that one is evil while the other is righteous, that is not real. To see superficial physical differences and assume fundamental differences in humanity is a very stupid kind of confusion, alas one that most white people are lost in — often without even realizing it.

Group Blame for Individual Crimes Only Applied to Other Races

Once a person is confused and seeing people according to race they increasingly attribute individual actions to that of the racial group. If race is real and meaningful, then whatever someone of a certain race does must be in some way a result of their race. All negative actions are lumped into a pool of sin attached to that race, a pool that can only grow. Or at least that’s how it works in the minds of racists who don’t recognize their own racism.

Fear Creates Racism, Racism Creates Fear

There is also a level of fear always present when a person is assumed to be fundamentally unlike yourself. If they are different in some way, then they might behave in ways you can’t predict, and that leads to fear. It’s no surprise that the most defining attribute of conservatives is their pronounced level of fear. This fear drives separation, which preserves the fear; if you believe there are sea monsters in the ocean and therefore never sail the ocean you can go your entire life believing your fear was real and justified because you never challenged it. Even if you do take a voyage now and again, you might still leave your false fear intact if you don’t try to understand the ocean based on evidence from those who have been in it and studied it.

It is racist to believe that race is real.

Give it a moment to let this sink in: just because you feel something is true, and just because you believe you have evidence that it is true, does not mean that it is actually true. You — and me, and all of us — are irrational animals who are easily confused, and from a place of initial confusion we often build vast networks of self-reenforcing confusions. Studies confirm this. If you go through life never challenging what you feel, if you get defensive when challenged by others, you’ll be lost forever to your own delusions and biases.

Failure of Empathy, Lack of Sympathy

To feel the pain of others we must see them as similar to ourselves. The white person who see black people as fundamentally different, then, will feel less empathy, as studies have shown. To see other races as different is to be less able to see things from their perspective, to understand and sympathize with their pain, and as people with a shared mission in life. This is why white people don’t care when black kids get gunned down. White people are unmoved by the tears and cries of suffering from the surviving mother. They feel less empathy because they see someone different. The confusion about race being real alone separates the white person from their own ability to care for another human being. They are, in effect, diminished into a less morally capable person just by believing in race. Racism is often felt as indifference, as a lack of feeling, as often as it is something active like fear or hatred.

From A Seed, The Mighty Plant, And The Entire Forest

All of this starts from believing that race is real and meaningful. From that core mistake comes a whole collection of confusions that self-reenforce despite being baseless. It is racist to believe that race is real. Without knowing this there is no hope for someone to move beyond racism. Simply because most people believe in nonsense doesn’t mean anyone among us ought to. Yes, white people take it for granted that race matters. Our parents did, and mostly still do, but we don’t have to. We have the option to see bullshit for what it is.

White People Are Racist, But They Don’t Have To Stay That Way

Because we grow up in a racist society we absorb the norms, assumptions, and assumed truths of that society. We have no choice. We are racist before we know what racism is, before we are able to read it in written form. It is normal to believe in the realness of race, so that is our starting point as white people. If we never challenge our own racism we’ll never see it for what it is, and therefore never be able to change. These effects of believing in race — dehumanization, fear, indifference to suffering — will work in us so long as we keep believing in race. It isn’t necessary to go out and actively hurt non-white people to be racist. Just because you don’t go out of your way to hurt black people doesn’t mean you’re blameless.

Waking Up Is Hard To Do

It isn’t fun to wake up to the reality that what is normal is also wrong, and that you’ve absorbed that wrongness and become a part of it. White people want to pretend that racism is some exceptional thing that only bad people do, but it isn’t, it is everywhere and it is inside of us, in our minds and perpetuated by both our actions and our failures to act. We have got to get down to the root of it or else it will continue to flourish not only within our own souls, but in our communities, as well. Racism is not something far away done by other people, it is among us and within us. Pride keeps it going. Humility can end it.

It Is Good To Be Awake

There is so much fear as a result of this everyday racism. How lonely must white people feel in their belief that nearly all people on earth or these other races, these strange and not-quite-human people whom they’ll never know or understand or connect with. When you wake up to your own racism you’re liberated over time from those feelings of fear and isolation. It feels good to recognize the racism within you so that you can see that there is a better version of yourself possible, one that sees the humanity in all people and therefore is no longer afraid. It feels good to see clearly and feel as one among billions of people just like yourself. It feels good to know you now have the option to be better to people, to maybe even be a good person, rather than blindly taking part in the suffering of others.

Essayist, former scientist, trans woman. Striving for actionable methods of peaceful revolution — relationships, community, mutual aid, subsistence, science.

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