An elementary aspect of modern racism, as evoked by Claudia Rankine in her book Citizen, is doubt. Doubt of one’s experience. Doubt that what one feels accurately reflects what one is seeing. Doubt that a sense of betrayal is substantial.
This is typified by the supposed white ally being racist without realizing it.
When racism can slip into discourse disguised by respectability politics (“if only they spoke a little more articulately”) or by wholesale judgments of groups (“all rap is garbage!”), it can be difficult to be sure that someone is being racist. White allies are always innovating new ways to reveal racist habits of minds that they have not yet questioned.
Whiteness itself is an ideology that fosters inclinations and habits through every day repetition that can buttress and make sensible a larger, racist world view. When needed, the reinforcement felt day to day can be called upon to reinforce much larger systems. For instance, if a white person lets themselves be accustomed to thinking all black Americans live in inner cities without realizing the racist implications, they can train themselves to ignore black voices that can’t be filtered past this worldview.
White allies, despite their proclaimed allyship, are no less likely to be free from doing this.
As a white person, I am no less innocent of making these mistakes but I’ve found, and want to share, a tactic that I’ve found is both useful for catching oneself and for catching others in a way that is undeniable. I’ve used it, again, on myself and others, to break past the initial defensiveness that is so easy to call upon when being called out.
Everyday racism often hides in thoughts that haven’t been followed to their conclusions. Though we might decry racism conclusions, we might not realize the racism inherent to the premises that lead to them. By exposing the logical chain beneath a thought, a thought that may have just seemed like taste or inclination or opinion, one can glimpse the racist machinery beneath.
An example will help illustrate this.
Diversity is a commonly discussed issue across a number of industries. Almost as often, a white person, sometimes a supposed ally, says that the only thing that really measures if someone enters an industry is passion. If someone’s passionate, they say, they’d do anything to succeed.
It sounds reasonable on its surface but let’s break it down, using the book publishing industry as an example.
Premise 1: passion is the ultimate metric for success in publishing
Premise 2: there are fewer minority people than whites in the publishing industry
Only possible conclusion: minority people are less passionate about books
Most people who believe premise 1 would balk at the conclusion. The conclusion is racist but the reason they’d balk is because it sounds racist, whereas premise 1 doesn’t. But, considering the objectively factual nature of premise 2, the conclusion must follow. If the true metric for entering the industry is passion and a certain portion of the industry hasn’t entered… then they must not be passionate enough.
It’s simple. It’s basic. But an essential part of racism is the ability whiteness grants to hold a whole host of contradicting ideas and feelings all at the same time without being forced to see their conclusions.
White allies slip into this easily when realizing the conclusion would make them uncomfortable, say, if it makes their supposedly innocent, liberal industry seem less innocent.
It’s the job of activists, especially white activists in this case, to raise the consciousness of themselves and others by pursuing the possibility of racism, not denying it outright. Racism is a power structure with deep roots and those roots twist around even the most simple intentions and thoughts. By exposing them, we can begin the process of uprooting them.
In order to build an intersectional movement that centers race as a defining issue, a higher order of consciousness must be demanded from white allies. Not the higher consciousness of knowing a bit of a history or a few buzzwords, but one shaped by deliberately inculcating the habits of self reflection and criticism, as well as the humility to own up to mistakes when they inevitably continue to be made.
Movements require solidarity. And solidarity requires nuanced understanding.