Racism begins with believing that race is a valid means of categorizing people. That is the heart of racism.
I hear white people — especially boomers — grousing about how ‘everything is racist these days’ in tones of bewilderment. There is a lot of unpack from that sentiment, but one critical feature I’ve noticed when pressing them to explain what exactly they mean by ‘everything is racist’ is they don’t actually understand what racism is.
The picture of racism for confused white people is this: Race is real. Different races are different kinds of people with different attributes and different brains and different ways of doing things. It is normal and expected for different races to keep to themselves. ‘Racism’ is when one race attacks another race, and that is wrong.
Many — if not most — white people take this for granted. For white people it’s the most normal way to think of race. If you’re the type who ‘isn’t political’, if you simply accept whatever you’re told as valid, then this is the kind of racist you become as a white person. This is part of why white people who claim they aren’t racist don’t think it’s wrong that they, say, have no non-white friends, never include non-white people in their lives, and live in all-white places. Such racist practices as separation by race is felt as normal to them because they can’t see how racist that is. White people like this are fine with segregation because that is how they assume the world simply ought to be, all while believing they aren’t racist. They are confused, then, when their normal way of life is called ‘racist’. Lacking the ability to look inward, they respond with defensiveness and rage, and just keep on being racist without seeing the extent of it.
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.
The reason my relative is annoyed by ‘everything being called racist’ is that she is racist and is being called out, she’s just too deep in her own confusion to see it, and lacks the moral courage necessary to move beyond the racism inherited from the racist society she was raised in. Most white people are like this: blinded by their own fragility, too cowardly to even look at their own racism. Clarity helps, though. Accurately painting a picture of what racism is is one of the first steps to recognizing it in our own hearts, which can lead to growth and healing and, just maybe, some kind of redemption.
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.
It’s impossible to overstate just how harmful and corrupting this essential dehumanization is. One of the cruelest things you can do to someone is fail to recognize them as people, to reject them as people, to treat them as less-than-human. There are other knock-on effects, but even just this one thing, to think race is real and to therefore perceive and treat other people as unlike yourself — not quite human in some way — just this is corrosive to the people being dehumanized and to the people doing the dehumanization. And again, this is how normal white people think. This is the norm for white people. They are taught to see race as real, and they go about their lives treating non-white people as less than human without questioning it. In their eyes race is as real as the sun, as real as gravity, it just is, and it’s simply a fact of life that other races are different and not-quite-as-human as white people. And they don’t think of this as racist.
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.
There are so many more problems with this normalized racism, the kind that most white people do not believe is racist:
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.
If you interpret one person as being of a group, while another person as being their own person, you will end up thinking less of the member of the group as well as the group itself. White people end up with a kind of mental tally of crimes of non-white people. Every time they hear of a black or hispanic person doing something wrong it adds to that tally. A white person doing something wrong doesn’t add anything to the group tally of white people because white people don’t believe in ‘white people’, they recognize their own humanity as distinct from their race, and so white people remain blameless in their own eyes. This feeds the seed of racism and lets it grow stronger and larger over time. This mechanism means that once someone is invested in race they can’t help but perceive those races as worse than their own.
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.
Fear also drives cognitive distortions such as confirmation bias. This study shows the mere presence of fear is enough to generate confirmation bias. The fearful person searches for confirmation of their fears, and whenever they find it they exaggerate the danger, using their flawed perception to reenforce their flawed perception. We tend to find what we’re looking for and ignore what we assume isn’t there. As that study — among others if you follow the references and citations — shows that the otherness of other races leads to fear of the unknown which by itself leads to feelings that those fears are justified. Racism feeds itself unless the cycle is broken by some kind of awakening.
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.
If you, white reader, are pissed off because you think it’s ridiculous that you — paragon of moral perfection, shining crystal of righteousness, defect-free exemplar of rationality — could possibly be racist, then you are not only racist but still lost inside your own dream-like world of false racial reality. You’ll keep dreaming until you recognize that you aren’t perfect. Pride will keep you asleep. You’ll be among the sleep-walking racists who keep all this suffering going. There are racists who are fully awake to their own racism, but you don’t need to be aware of it to embody it.
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.
If you believe it isn’t possible to see through the eyes of another because they are different from you, then you’ll never even try, and so you won’t develop that ability. A belief in race leads to a lifetime of failing to even make the effort to understand people of other races. This drives such critical failures as white doctors today still failing to perceive — and therefore to validate and treat — black pain, as studies show. White apathy for black suffering is normal and so deep it leads people to shrug away the murder of children.
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.
We have got to wake up to the reality that race isn’t real and isn’t meaningful. There is no truth in separating people according to what we perceive as race. That is pure confusion. People are all people, they are all fundamentally like us, and we all share the same human experience. Their pain is our pain. Any white person who wants to be counted among the good must go far out of their way to uproot this delusion of race and do the work necessary to see the undivided humanity in all people.
The evidence of our commonality is thoroughly and well-documented by scientists and wise thinkers both now and through time, but you’ll only see that reality if you’re open to it. Our shared humanity is so obvious once you have eyes to see it. It’s like turning on a light switch in a dark room: you don’t have to work hard to see what is there, you just have to open your eyes.
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.