When they came for everyone but you, you did not speak out, because you were not one of those that they were coming for. Until they came for you next… but what if they didn’t come for you next? Would you still regret not speaking out for others? Or is your fear of being next the only force driving you to speak out against the mistreatment of others? Silence implicates you in the subjugation of others, but whether or not you speak out, if it’s based only in fear for yourself, you deserve no commendation. Do not act only because you suspect you may be next; act because you’re a human being and the degradation of other human beings is unacceptable.
A friend of mine, “Rebecca,” was a casual racist. She said things that were red flags and if I tried to calmly refute or explain why what she’d said was a problem, she would immediately become defensive and shut herself down to avoid soaking up any new information. Laughed at me, acted like I was stupid, dismissed me as an “SJW” because I cared about people who didn’t look like me. She was entirely self-centered, and stubborn. I could respond with emotion or logic, but neither was effective. Still, I tried. It always ended with me having to walk away frustrated, and take some space from our friendship.
She was white, and her mother was one of those people who insisted frequently that she was not racist just before making a sweeping generalization about an entire race of people. She was friends with a black man at her church, and she loved spending time with him there. It was too bad more blacks weren’t like him, she would say, instead of what she believed most of them to be: unintelligent, prone to violence, and averse to working for what they get. “It’s not racism, it’s just the truth!” She had no knowledge or opinion of socioeconomic systems designed specifically to benefit the types of people who created them – nor of any issues pertaining to centuries of discrimination practices in real estate, government protection, hiring/wages, and nearly every other facet of everyday life – other than to say “that’s all in the past.” To her, racism didn’t exist anymore, and anyone who thought it did was an idiot. When Ohio Trump surrogate Kathy Miller recently said that “if you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last fifty years, it’s your own fault,” I was instantly reminded of my friend’s mother. This is not an aberrant point of view. It’s remarkably common in people who do not have any meaningful interaction with people unlike themselves, and/or who believe that because they have problems of their own, nobody else has the right to complain. The belief that racism is over can be seen as optimism, but truly it’s a symptom of stubborn ignorance. It’s impossible not to absorb the reality of racism unless you make a point not to.
Rebecca’s father was very religious, but the “love thy neighbor” part missed him entirely. How he could revere so strongly a God who created all humans, and yet feel disgust for everyone who didn’t immediately resemble himself went hand-in-hand, I’ll never understand. But I do understand why Rebecca had anti-black and anti-Mexican sentiment hard-wired into her. It’s how she grew up. Everyday comments from parents have a lifelong effect. Overt racism is easy to spot, and easy to condemn. A white man in a Klan robe shouting “go back to Africa!” is easily rebuked. When it’s blatant and loud, it’s safe for everyone to say “I disagree with that.” Casual racism – and casual sexism and homophobia for that matter – practiced by so many people who insist they don’t have a racist bone in their body, is far more dangerous. It allows injustices to happen without interference, and without accountability.
Rebecca and I had an argument when I brought up a recent case of racial discrimination ending in violence. She didn’t understand why so many young people of color, especially women, were upset about this incident and others involving police brutality. I said that when a group of historically and consistently oppressed people are telling you something, you should listen. Her response was that a group of Klan members can all believe something but that doesn’t make it right. I tried to explain the difference between Klan members being full of blind hatred, and young black women being concerned about their rights and safety, but it fell on deaf ears. To Rebecca, it was a cut-and-dry issue of oversensitivity. There is a big difference between a group of oppressors all feeling one way about the oppression they commit, and a group of oppressed people feeling differently. The concept of biological supremacy is not an opinion that we must respect. It’s a tool to maintain power, by definition to maintain inequality and subservience. Her response when I asked her thoughts on oppressed people feeling recognized, safe, heard, or equal? “I don’t really care.”
“I don’t really care.” This was especially shocking to me because it was the first time she had said that so matter-of-factly to me. She just didn’t care. I could have responded by discussing white privilege and explaining that she has the ability to not care while people of color have no choice but to care. But I didn’t, because we were already at that point where nothing I said would have mattered. Rebecca was someone who would not understand what “white privilege” meant, anyway. She would take it as an attack, rather than a term to explain the very real American social advantage that white skin brings even with the lowliest birth. I said “you don’t care?” “Nope, don’t care.”
What was doubly worrisome about this interaction was that Rebecca worked at a company that had much opportunity to make change. Her company influenced people of all ages, and could cater to people of their choosing. To know that she “didn’t care” about what people of color think about, worry about, deal with every day… to me signaled she didn’t care to cater to them in her career either. She was poised to impact social change for the better in her own way, and simply didn’t care.
In the past, I had tried to explain to her my belief that being called “racist” should not be taken an insult, even if it is said with anger. It should be seen an excuse to think critically about what you say and what you mean. I am racist. My husband, my mother, and my best friends are racist, despite being some of the most open-minded and progressive people I know. I believe that pretty much every person who grew up in America – immersed in images that reinforce negative stereotypes against people of color, and surrounded by white people who have centuries of ingrained irrational fears and supremacist self-esteem inside them – is racist.
People of color can be conditioned to believe that other people of color are inherently less virtuous than white people. Just like gay men can be irrationally turned off by “feminine” qualities in other gay men, because society says that femininity in a male is something to be disgusted by. People in an oppressed group are not immune to the detrimental effects of negative propaganda that targets their group. Nobody is free from conforming to white supremacy in America, not even non-white people. In our collective subconscious, it’s always there. It’s so normal that many people do not even recognize its existence, and take offense even to the topic. I’m not even white, by many standards. Growing up I was often asked what country I came from, because of my olive skin, dark hair and eyes, and non-European features. My resemblance to my Middle Eastern father and grandmother, both out of the picture, confused me as a child in a white family in suburban Ohio. But I was ingrained with white supremacy simply by existing in this place at this time, and by being whiter than black. This may sound radical, but it’s the truth about white people that most white people do not want to say out loud. It’s a fault that we share, but as long as we are open to admitting it and actively working against it, it’s simply something to consciously overcome. It’s not that hard.
It’s on me to directly combat the stereotypes with which I was coded from birth. It’s on me to speak up for people who are victimized, even when I am not. As someone who cares about my rights and safety as a gay man, I must also care about the rights and safety of people of color, people of different religious beliefs, people who are differently abled, or any member of any stigmatized group. And that takes effort to understand. It takes humility to admit that we are not perfect and that we are capable of mistakes, even ones that we do not mean to be harmful. It takes patience to understand the term “racist” as a term for mental error, and not an attack. Knee-jerk reaction for most, when called a racist, is to explain how incredibly not racist they are, usually with irrelevant anecdotes. Many people’s first reaction to being told they have made a mistake is to mentally contort until they have found what they believe to be a justification for their behavior. It’s instinctual self-preservation, but everyone could save a lot of time and anguish if they applied the same critical eye to their own behavior that they apply to bold names in the tabloids.
It’s easy for those who disagree to write off my sentiments as “white guilt” despite my mixed heritage and racially-confused upbringing. The term “white guilt” assumes these feelings to be baseless in contemporary times, and circles back to the belief that racism is a thing of the past. So to argue against that, one must convince someone who has made that choice – to ignore the glaring reality of systemic racism – to suddenly stop making that choice. And here we are met again with the tendency of the human mind to try to rationalize whatever it has convinced itself of rather than make a change in theory. Instead, I focus on myself and offer the addition of my voice to those whose voices are overlooked as unfounded or ungrateful.
It’s true that often, the word “racist” is used as an angry label. But we must understand where that anger comes from, and understand that it’s a cry to be treated equally and to be seen as a valuable life. A mental error can be recognized and worked on. Racism is a mental error, and the onus to correct it is on the individual who is being told that he or she has it.
I excused myself from Rebecca’s presence the day she revealed to me that she didn’t care about people unlike herself. My frustrated parting words were that she was ignorant, defensive, and stubborn. “It’s a real problem for me,” I said. Since then, I haven’t reached out to her, and she hasn’t reached out to me. When I first wrote about her, many were quick to tell me to cut her out of my life, or say “you need better friends.” But this was someone who had been in my life for almost a decade. I wanted to educate her. I wanted her to grow. I didn’t want to abandon her completely and contribute to her belief that anyone who thinks like I do is just stupid and stubborn (projection!). She never understood what I was talking about, or why I was upset about things that were happening to other people. I asked myself at the time, “what is a friendship where you disagree on the most basic human issues?” How could I move forward with someone who refused to see further than the tip of their own white nose? It turned out, I couldn’t.
Brad Walsh is a NYC based singer/songwriter, producer and visual artist whose second full-length album, Six Infinite, is now available on iTunes and Amazon. The thirteen-track LP showcases what Walsh does best, the ability to mix dance pop songs with EDM undercurrents and darker lyrical content.