The Complexities of Racism and Identity
Author's Note: This essay was originally published on The Establishment last week. It is my lowest performing essay to date, which is interesting because I've built some momentum with my essays there. If I had to guess, it's because it's not a rant, a condemnation, or even a super strong opinion. It's my thoughts around identity and racism in America. It's such an interesting thing to know that race isn't real but racism is. It took me a while to understand how that works, and I think conversations around this will continue to evolve. I think the evolution will mainly be from the verbal and mental gymnastics white people use to avoid talking about racism, but I could be wrong. I don't think so, though.
I had the weirdest conversation with a friend last week.
We were talking about my statement of all white Americans being racist. Like most people, she had a knee-jerk negative reaction to the statement—and I get it. “Racist” has been made into a loaded word that people equate with evil. But while being a racist is obviously bad, like with many things, there are shades of grey.
You have your overt, angry, openly hateful, violent racists. These are the white people who openly attack Black people in the name of white supremacy and ethnic cleansing. Then you have your “play nice” racists, who pretend that everything is okay when they are around Black people, but quickly descend into denigrating and derogatory comments about us in all-white spaces. After that you have the people who don’t practice overt hate speech, but instead refer to us as “those people” or use euphemisms like “urban youth” and refer to themselves as conservatives.
Then you cross into the liberal side, where racism is especially coded. These are the people who easily live, work, and play around a certain type of Black people (i.e. college-educated, professional), but can’t understand why those other Black people can’t straighten themselves out. Next are the ones who “don’t see color” and say they treat everyone equally . . . that is, until you point out some racist subtext to what they said and then it’s “You’re the one being racist, you close-minded asshole. Maybe if you stopped treating everything as a nail, you wouldn’t have these problems. Only racists point out racism! My ex-boyfriend is Black!”—as if riding some Black man absolves you of white privilege and all the institutional benefits you and your family have received for being white.
Then there’s the performative allies (god I wish I’d developed this term) who stand in solidarity with you until you challenge their privilege in a way that makes them uncomfortable. And finally, you have the white people who know they are racist and challenge the racism of the white people in their lives while also using their privilege to assist Black people on Black people’s terms. I include women like Jane Elliott in that category. She goes all in.
All this is to say that yes, in America, all white people are racist, but the degree to which they are varies. Just like Black people can’t opt out of experiencing racism, white people can’t opt out of participating in it. What they can do is challenge it and contribute to the work to dismantle it.
This is a difficult concept for people to accept. Part of it is the way the word “racist” is processed by white people. I mentioned before that people equate it with evil, and racism itself is an evil practice, rooted in colonialism, exploitation, torture, treachery, and cruelty so abhorrent that more than 100 years later, white people still can’t come to grips with the evil their ancestors did. The actions that still happen in the name of racism are horrible crimes against humanity. They need to be ended right now. But racism is also a system that was created around these crimes against humanity and designed to keep power and autonomy away from Black people. This system is maintained on every level and in every public and private system. Racism and white supremacy are in the laws, rules, education, media. We are all taught through books, music, television that white always trumps black. Light always defeats darkness. White is purity while black is evil. Light is truth and dark is treachery. Bad things happen in the dark, but the light protects you.
Ironically, a lot of evil happened in the light by the white, and it was the lightness of skin that justified their evil.
White people rewrote history, scrubbed it of many of the abuses and horrors they inflicted on Black people, and called the lies “truth.” They conducted studies with the intent to prove that Black people were somehow more than superficially different from white people and called the lies “science.” They stole land and instituted laws that forbade Black people from purchasing land, or getting credit for their inventions. They lied on everything about Black people and then convinced themselves that Black people were the liars. That dark skin can’t be trusted.
Which brings me back to the conversation with my friend. She asserted that people can be racist against their own race. That, I said, is not possible.
It's important to understand that racism is about more than the individual. A "racist Black person" may attempt to inflict racism, but the system won't protect them from that same treatment. As such, it's impossible to equate their participation in racist systems with those who always benefit from it.
Take, for example, the Black police officer who enforces “stop and frisk” policies on Black men, but still finds himself subjected to being stopped and frisked when off-duty. Despite his individual complicity within the system, he is still subjected to racist practices, and this increases based on his proximity to white people.
After discussing this with my friend, she asked about multi-racial children, the ones who could pass for white--and that is where things became really interesting.
I hesitate to comment on this because I am unquestioningly, unequivocally Black. I initially learned about the concept of “passing” as white from Nella Larson’s book, Passing; prior to that, I had no idea that this was something Black people could do, because race was based on how you looked and choice wasn’t a factor. People who “pass” can move between the Black and white racial identities; they are not limited to one by their appearance. That double consciousness that Dubois talks about can take on a different meaning: It can be the consciousness of your Blackness masked behind your white presentation. It can be the rejection of your Blackness under that white presentation. It can be the projection of your Blackness through your white presentation. It can be the accepting of that whiteness and Blackness.
In truth, if someone does not look Black, people will assume they are not Black and treat them accordingly. Someone who does not look Black can, though, choose to opt in to a racial identity and to experience the racism that comes with that. They still, though, won’t have the same experience, because that person will need to inform others of their chosen identity and may not receive the same treatment as people easily identified as Black.
Multi-racial people who pass for white have privilege that can shift in ways that mine cannot. I sometimes wonder what identity I would choose if I had a choice. I can’t fault anyone for either not disclosing or choosing the white identity; it provides access to spaces that are otherwise off-limits. It also seems like a lot of work to get people to recognize one’s identity. While they get to navigate the world able to avoid many of the microaggressions and overt aggressions targeting Black people, they also are subject to myriad other anti-Black rhetoric and commentary that I wouldn’t experience. They get to experience white people who believe they are in an all-white space and the complicated interactions that come with that. I cannot begin to imagine what that would be like.
I do know that to embrace whiteness, is to embrace the lie of white supremacy. It is to willfully ignore deceptions, diversions, and accept the many ways white America silences its bloody past. You would need to silence the part of yourself and your heritage that survived that despite overwhelming odds. It would mean embracing the racial violence your family both suffered and performed.
That’s a rough road to walk.
So, to address the question of whether it’s possible to be racist against your own race? From my limited perspective, if you’ve embraced the lie of whiteness, you’ve rejected Blackness as your identifier and decided that you are not Black. You have made the choice to access all the privileges granted to white people, and to fully participate in racism. You have spliced aspects of your behavior to conform with what you think makes you acceptable to white people. You've rejected behaviors and symbols that have been identified as "Black" and continue to modify yourself to be different. In your head, you aren't like those Black people. You're different. Better. You've assimilated and every symbol of approval you achieve in white America is considered to be success.
But while that may work for you now, there may come a point where you won’t be able to choose your identity; because as much as identity can be a choice, more often than not, that choice is made for us. We see it with gender, size, sexuality . . . we are informed of who we are expected to be and are often required to conform to that expectation.
It's important to note that while Black people cannot technically be racist, we can be complicit. People like Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson, while they technically cannot be racist, deny their Black identity enough to set themselves up as exceptions to a system designed to work against them. That is, they aggressively support and enforce racist practices to gain white approval. They are the faces of performative anti-Blackness, hence their popularity among conservative, conventionally racist crowds. These men are the “Black friends” who don’t have a problem with the racist shit white people do because they don’t see themselves as those Black people who are still fighting for justice in an unjust country.
Racism is complicated. It stays complicated. It’s a web of man-made bullshit designed to empower one group of people over others. Because the differences between people are superficial, the web keeps changing and all of it is to protect the lie that is white supremacy. Until racism is unraveled and destroyed, it will continue to destroy humanity through its oppression and cruelty. It will continue to dehumanize Black and brown people in order to maintain its façade. It is corruption, and until white people can own their shame and their pain, it will continue to spread and destroy.
The time has come for us to break the lie and let us, all of us, heal.