Stop Ignoring Casual Racism
Justin Cohen
August 16, 2018

Last weekend, white nationalists and Ku Klux Klansmen tried to take the streets of Washington DC, but they were outnumbered by counter-protestors. In the year since the deadly Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the country has developed a heightened awareness of the risks of ignoring large assemblages of overt racists. Through a combination of public shaming on social media, which sometimes results in people getting fired from their jobs, anti-racist organizers have dampened the public rallying ability of these domestic terrorists.

These counter measures should be applauded, as ostracizing people for being overt white supremacists is a good thing. Being an asshole should come with social costs, and losing one’s job is an appropriate and proportionate consequence for moonlighting as a Nazi. What’s unclear, however, is whether the weakened public showing is evidence of a concomitant decrease in white nationalist sentiment. Most indicators suggest that white supremacist sympathy is on the rise, even if there are fewer hoods on the street this year than last.

By focusing only on overt fascist displays, we risk being distracted from the everyday work of combatting racism. I’m talking about the casual, quotidian, insidious sort of racism, which is harder to detect. Hurling insults at a Klansman’s hood is easy.

But what do we do about the maintenance of racism that happens in the home and the workplace every day?

In my conversations about racism with other white people, many express anxiety about confronting the other white people in their lives. They tend to equate “calling out racism” with challenging their n-word-slinging “racist uncles.”

First of all, that guy is a total douche.

But let’s forget about that guy for a moment. There are other, potentially simpler fish to fry. Here are some examples of subtler manifestations of casual racism, which crop up among white people who consider themselves to be “the good ones.” I suspect there are one of two of these in your life:

Exhibit A: The Old White Boss Who Says, “That’s Just the Way It Is”

This guy has grandfatherly charm, even though he still looks over his shoulder when he says “black.” He’s a lifelong Democrat, and so according to his white contemporaries, he “couldn’t possibly be racist.”

[Insert your laughter here.]

He quotes LBJ with uncomfortable regularity. He is a font of knowledge with respect to progressive political history, so long as that history is explicit about the centrality of white people to the “struggle,” because otherwise, he’s not really interested.

Also, he has never hired a person of color into a leadership role. He has amassed boatloads of institutional authority, and he uses none of that power to uplift black and brown people. He is rarely confronted about this “blind-spot,” however, because he has insulated himself from this precise criticism, through decades of surrounding himself with white people who think and behave the way he does.

See how the perpetual motion machine of white privilege works?

When a morsel of criticism manages to penetrate his self-erected wall of I-couldn’t-possibly-be-racist defenses, his response is simple and practiced:

“That’s just the way it is.”

When someone – let’s be honest, usually a black woman – tries to interject and explain that he is a central player in the “way it is,” he interrupts her. She, who deigns to challenge his behaviors, even when those challenges are supported with data, is made to feel naïve and unreasonable. In his accounting, the fact that there aren’t enough “qualified” candidates of color is a problem beyond his control, even though the institutions and sectors over which he presides have been shaped by his hiring proclivities for the better part of a generation.

Exhibit B: The Type-A White Lady Who “Doesn’t Have Time” to Think About Racism

Her schedule is managed in fifteen-minute increments, by someone else, of course. She might be able to fit you into one of those blocks, but only if we set our sights on a date two months from now. In the short-term, she is focused only on her highest priorities, which include a variety of things both urgent and important.

Fighting racism, unfortunately, does not fit into the schedule.

The list of topics that, for her, supersede the need to combat racism veer tragically from significant matters with long-term consequences, like gender equality in the workplace, to things more trivial, like, oh I don’t know, CrossFit.

In micromanaging her life around goals that are “measurable, achievable, and time-limited,” this person has limited the ability to use her power and privilege to fight long-term fights.

Pushing back against racism does not happen conveniently in micro-dosed increments, you tell her.

“I can’t pick every fight,” she reminds you, as she registers for a weekend of self-care at an expensive retreat center.

In the meantime, her social and professional networks, which are the beneficiaries of her accumulated wealth and privilege, contain only cosmetic diversity. When confronted about this fact, she quickly adjusts her Instagram timeline to emphasize the one Black woman in her book club.

Exhibit C: Lefty Political Bro Who Only Knows White Dudes

He has one bookshelf in his slightly-too-fancy-for-a-socialist one-bedroom apartment, which is filled with Marxist critiques of American culture, all of which were written by white men. He blogs about those books using an Apple laptop, which seems incongruous with the socialist utopia about which he fantasizes.

When he goes out, he drinks bourbon, and he does so with five other white dudes who all spoke unreasonably loudly at the last Democratic Socialists of America meeting. They weren’t lecturing you, he claims. They were just aggressively sharing information that you obviously didn’t have.

He is, after all, leading the revolution.

And by all accounts, that revolution is white as fuck.

Whiter than a New England kale farm in February.

Whiter than a private school squash tournament.

Whiter than Oregon.

“You’re focused on the wrong things,” he reminds you. It’s not about race, per se, he claims. It’s about class. “If we figure out class issues, we won’t have to worry about racism,” he asserts with hilarious certainty

In the meantime, his merry band of bros continues to carouse, without a hint of self-awareness as to how their impossibly white revolution might be viewed by anyone with a soupcon of melanin.

**************

If I’m being honest with myself, I contain elements of Exhibits B and C, and my greatest fear is becoming Exhibit A as I get older, crankier, and less patient. One of the starkest privileges of being white is the ability to ignore racism with almost no personal repercussions.

It is exactly this privilege that makes it necessary for other white folks to create social consequences for casual racism, in addition to the ones we are creating for more overt displays; otherwise the people in this article – who, admittedly, are caricatures – will continue to get away with ignoring the existential problems surrounding race.

If this idea sounds obvious to you, and you’re white, you’re not among the majority of white people in America. When I talk to other white folks about this work, their usual response is that the incentive system for calling out casual racism is, in a word, fucked. The common perception is that there are greater social costs for addressing other white folks’ casual racism, than there are for perpetuating racism itself. This perceived asymmetry is devastating to the work of anti-racism, and the only way to remedy the problem is by cultivating more and more white people in our lives who can identify, address, and confidently call out the bullshit they see other white people do on an everyday basis.

If you already know what micro-aggressions are, that’s great! But are we identifying and calling them out in real time, and subsequently helping other white folks to do the same?

Do you already have a significant diversity and inclusion analysis of your workplace? If yes, that’s awesome. Have you shared that analysis with your white superiors, even if you’re likely to get laughed out of the room?

These are just a couple of ways that well-meaning white folks can flex their privilege in the service of racial justice.

The other complaint I often hear is that fear often gets in the way of doing this work in real time. Fear that we’ll do it wrong, or even fear that we’ll be forced to abscond ourselves from the white community forever after identifying a single micro-aggression. Those fears are usually exaggerated, and they are always far less consequential than allowing racism to persist and flourish. Your comfort as a white person is less valuable than the liberation of our black and brown peers.

The white folks who stood up to racist terrorists in the streets last weekend were brave. Putting one’s personal safety on the line in the service of social progress is admirable. The work of fighting racism, however, also happens in daily trenches that are less obvious. The brunch tables, smoothie bars, and cocktail parties of white America are fertile ground for fighting white supremacy. We are failing to show up in those spaces in pursuit of justice on a regular basis. Sometimes, we just stand still and let the status quo wash over us. We need to occupy those places, in pursuit of justice, with the same passion and furor that we use to combat the Klan.

3 Comments

  1. Justin, I feel unsettled after reading your essay, but I’m not sure why. You own up to B & C, and possibly A, and that’s good (me too) but the main thrust seems to be catching people being unconsciously racist and “calling them out.” But what we mean by “unconsciously racist” is: “a little less conscious than I am”. Since there’s always someone further along than I am, humility would be a good starting point. Presumably, the person isn’t being intentionally racist – that would be a different case.
    I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-most answer, but what I struggle with is, how to be clear without insinuating the person knows better but just won’t do better. When I’m asleep at the wheel I want someone to wake me up & with as much urgency as necessary. But hold the blame, shame & abuse, please. Once I’m awake we can have a conversation about responsibility. Before that it’s just a distraction and an invitation to get defensive.
    I think what I’m looking for is a way to persuade rather than a way to feed my righteous indignation.
    I’ve been trying various things and I find this quite difficult in practice. If I’ve misinterpreted your intent, I apologize.
    Paul

    Reply
    • I hear what you’re saying, Paul.

      I was being intentionally provocative here, because – after many years of attempting to do this work with subtlety – I am no longer convinced that gentle persuasion is an effective method vis-a-vis fighting racism.

      Persuasion doesn’t work for the people who are committed racists, for obvious reasons.

      For less obvious reasons, people who “want to do better” often seem paralyzed by the very humility to which you refer. Humility is important, yes. But I worry that too much humility often ends up being a barrier to action, especially among well-meaning white folks.

      I too am on a journey. But I have come to believe that we need to start taking action, even when the journey isn’t complete.

      Does that mean some element of shame? Maybe, unfortunately. Does that mean calling out our family members? Yes, definitely.

      Does that mean holding ourselves up as morally superior? Absolutely not. But we cannot wait for perfection before pursuing justice.

      Just my opinion, as always 😉

      Reply
  2. I want more precise examples of exactly what I can do and say. I’m seeing more and more pieces like this in the media, and they often end with vague suggestions, but nothing concrete enough to make me feel like, Yes! I can do that the next time I’m at my book club (I don’t actually belong to one but you know what I mean), at work gatherings that lack any POC, with my liberal white friends complaining about Trump, etc. But I get paralyzed just thinking about it. I’m so afraid now of pissing off black people unintentionally. Recently I was attacked online by a local activist who basically hates all white liberals right now and thinks we’re all fragile, privileged jerks. All I did was ask her who she would have preferred in a local election where a liberal white man won. All the contenders were liberal white men, unfortunately (it was a primary), but she was disgusted with the one who prevailed. He’s a doctor who has worked with Michelle Obama on healthcare issues in Chicago. But somehow he is viewed as a horror by this woman and others. This kind of thing baffles me. We’re in the fight of our lives to try to save the country from truly fascist, racist thugs, but she’s disgusted with the imperfect white folks fighting that fight. I felt terrible that she called me out, as I’d asked her the question in total humility and even fear — if this activist was so upset that he won, did I vote wrong? Was he some kind of closet racist? She blasted me and others for not having combed through every candidate’s history to see if they would lift up people of color. Now I feel guilty for not having done that to her satisfaction, but I’m still confident that the winner will do a good job for all of us if he prevails over the cowardly, Trump-enabling GOP incumbent who has held office for 30+ years. So now I keep second-guessing myself on my allyship, feeling like I have no idea what I can do or say as a white progressive that will not be misconstrued as privileged BS. (Even that sentence will be interpreted as whining white fragility. Hence the paralysis.) All I want to know is what I can do, SPECIFICALLY, to help and not hurt the cause.

    Reply

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