Thursday, December 11, 2014

Racism In America

“If you are white, you are a racist.”  

Racism In America.  Wednesday nights, 7:30pm-10:30pm.  This is the class I signed up to take when I was in college.  If you are white, you are a racist.  This is the first sentence out of the mouth of one of the two professors teaching this class: the White one.  The other is African-American.  The class is a good mixture of kids from different racial backgrounds, and for the next three hours everybody is raising his/her hand in an effort to try to understand why the teachers are making this bold statement, or to explain why they themselves were not racist (or why the heck were they in this class?).

This was over 25 years ago.  And yet I find myself thinking about this statement today in the wake of the police shootings of Michal Brown, Eric Garner and others.  People are angry that a white man unjustly killed a black man. 

Anyway, back to the class.  As you might imagine, it didn’t take long before students started to debate the definition of “racism”.  Prejudice? Discrimination? It turns out that the teachers were purporting this particular definition: If you are white, then you benefit from being white (whether you intend to or not, whether you are aware of it or not, and whether you like it or not) – and that makes you racist.

Well, the consensus was that that seemed like a self-defeating slam-dunk way to start a class that was not at all fair.  Where does one go from there?  One can’t help being white any more than one can help being any other race.  And to a bunch of 20 year olds, this was simply unacceptable.  Everybody managed to continue the semester, learn, and contribute to productive discussions.  But to my knowledge, no white person ever walked out of that class sporting the new moniker of “racist”.

Which brings me back to the current events.  I would love for this country to get to the point where these types of incidents were criminal because a person unjustly shot another person, regardless of race, gender or any other distinguishing characteristics.  Nonetheless, the message here, today, that so many black men are saying in the media brings me right back to that definition of racism.  So many are saying that they don’t feel comfortable walking in their own skin for fear of being blamed for something they have not done.  Sound familiar?  Flip it and we are back to the definition: the white male would (comparatively) benefit in that he presumably does not walk around fearing from the police that he is a target based on how he looks.

So now I am wondering, do my fellow students from that class (those who are white) actually now think they are “racist” based on the classes definition and in light of current events?


  1. I hate to say it, but I have gotten the impression over the years that "white = racist by default" is pretty much how it goes IRL.

    I prefer Avenue Q's "Everyone's a little bit racist," myself, because while we all have our moments of wishing the Mexican busboy could speak English, it doesn't necessarily mean that we'd discriminate.

  2. I was hoping that class opening was going somewhere a bit different, that it was a lesson in what it feels like to be stereotyped rather than the basic thesis of the class. Oh well.

    That said, it sounds to me like what the professors were calling racism would now be called white privilege, which it seems to me is a much more useful way of discussing the issue, because it's helpful in making distinctions. Racism is a real thing, but it's not identical to racial privilege. It's hard enough to get white people (I say this as a white person) to understand the phenomenon of white privilege without weighing it down with the term "racism."