Welcome. Let me start by saying I’m no expert. I’m a beginner anti-racist myself and a work in progress. And I want you to know that it’s OK to be new to this, to be a beginner. Everyone starts somewhere, and I’m very glad you’re here.
Like learning to drive a car, learning about racism and beginning to participate in anti-racist conversation & action can be perilous. There’s a lot at stake. People can get hurt. But I’ve found that if I don’t put up a front and pretend I already know what I’m doing, it’s easier to learn what I ought to do.
When I began to get serious about investigating racial issues, I discovered that one of the best ways to make real progress as a beginner is to acknowledge to myself, and to others whenever appropriate, that I have a lot to learn and a lot of changing to do. I consciously admitted to myself that I really am ignorant and probably filled with all kinds of prejudices. I confessed to myself that despite my best intentions I would probably make all sorts of mistakes that might hurt people, and I would have to be willing to apologize, learn, and change. And that change wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t happen overnight.
The amazing thing is, admitting this also freed me. I found that conversations about race were no longer quite so scary when I entered them with this knowledge about myself.
I guess it’s like AA: the first step is admitting I have a problem. If I expose myself as someone who harbors prejudice, I don’t have to live in fear exposure. Instead, I can move forward and make real progress.
And believe it or not, once you’ve gotten your feet wet, I think you’ll find this is exciting.
My goal, in what follows, is to introduce some basic ideas and recommend some first steps for fellow beginners.
Effective consciousness-raising about racism must also point the way to constructive action. When people don’t have the tools for moving forward, they tend to return to what is familiar, often becoming more vigorous in their defense of the racial status quo than they were initially. (Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, p. 105)
What is race? Biologically speaking, and contrary to popular opinion, humanity is not divided into different “races.” We are all the same species, and there are no subspecies. Phenotypic variety (skin color, hair texture, eye shape, body stature, etc.) exists in our species in a continuous spectrum without breaks and divisions. In the words of an evolutionary biologist:
Today, the majority of geneticists, evolutionary biologists, and anthropologists agree that there are no biological races in the human species. We have known this [since at least the early 1990s]; yet the message has not been successfully conveyed to the American public…. None of the physical features by which we have historically defined human races—skin color, hair type, body stature, blood groups, disease prevalence—unambiguously corresponds to the racial groups that we have constructed…. The simple fact… is that science identifies no races in the human species, not because we wish there to be no races but because the peculiar evolutionary history of our species has not led to their formation. There is more genetic variability in one tribe of East African chimpanzees than in the entire human species! Only political orthodoxy in a racially stratified society has maintained the race concept for this long. If race does not exist at the biological level… it is a falsehood in the service of social oppression. (Joseph L. Graves, Jr., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, pp. 5-9)
The idea of different human “races” is a social construct. We have imposed lines where, biologically speaking, none exist, creating ideological categories of people called “races.” Our cultures have, furthermore, imbued these artificial categories with a variety of meanings which are perpetuated, applied, and transmitted in myriad ways (both consciously/intentionally and unconsciously/unintentionally).
Before I continue, it’s important to clarify a point that I think some of us white people badly misunderstand. Just because race is not a biological reality does not mean it isn’t a reality. Saying that race is a social construct absolutely does not mean that race is something that we can simply ignore without very real and frankly devastating consequences for everyone. People can say all they want that “race shouldn’t matter,” but it does.
Pandora’s box has already been opened. There can be no return to some golden era before the concept of race and all its consequences existed. No modern culture, especially here in the United States, is uninfected, and no one is immune. It’s deeply imbedded in the unconscious minds, thoughts and beliefs, words, and actions of every person. It’s given expression in the social mores, systems and structures, and other cultural artifacts we’ve inherited and created. No child who lives in the real world can possibly be shielded from the concept of race and its consequences. Racial messages are ubiquitous, and they’re transmitted, as I said above, in myriad ways. We’re going to have to play with the hand we’ve been dealt. We can’t return to a time before the concept of race and its consequences, but we can shape a new future. It is a fantasy to hope that our racial problems will go away if we ignore them; we’re going to have to be proactive.
Race is at the same time myth and reality. Race is a fiction—arbitrary and artificial; it is unscientific, deceptive, misleading, and insane. At the same time, race is very real. Race is a sociopolitical construct that originated in Europe, but developed its present-day design in the United States. Race is an enforced myth that dictates the very identity and condition of each of our lives. (Joseph Barndt, Understanding & Dismantling Racism, p. 73)
What is racism? When we say “racism,” most people interpret it to mean something like “prejudice toward, and/or actions perpetrated against other people on the basis of race.” And dictionaries base their definitions on this common use: “the belief that some races are innately superior to others” and “hostile or oppressive behavior towards people because they belong to a different race.” In these definitions, racism is reduced to individual thoughts and actions. In some cases people take an even narrower view, only applying the term “racism” to very extreme examples of individual thoughts and actions, like conscious hatred or lynching people on the expressed basis of race. Occasionally, people use the term in a broader sense, like “treating or viewing others differently based on race,” but the emphasis usually remains on individual thoughts and actions.
Anti-racists have a more complex and nuanced understanding of what racism is. The definitions based on individual prejudice, and its expression in individual actions, do not provide a complete picture of racism in our culture.
Among anti-racists, racism is commonly understood as “prejudice plus (the misuse of) power.” David Wellman’s definition more fully expresses the result: “a system of advantage based on race.” What does this mean?
Any person, of any race, may harbor racial prejudice, consciously or unconsciously. Any person, of any race, can view or treat people differently based on race, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or not. I think we probably all do these things at some time or another, even when we do not intend to. When we discover that our prejudices and actions are harmful, we have a responsibility change our attitudes and behavior.
Racism is, however, a much bigger problem than personal prejudices. When the racial prejudices of one group are combined with social and institutional power—greater access to and control of social, cultural, political, and economic resources—power is abused and those prejudices become broadly systematized in common language, cultural messages, social mores, institutional practices and policies, cultural artifacts, etc. And this racist system, if left unacknowledged and unchecked, is self-perpetuating. Members of the group who already enjoy more social and institutional power bequeath that power to other members of the dominant group through a wide variety of means, including greater access to good schools, jobs, housing, and so forth.
In the United States, white people have, for centuries, had greater access to and control of social, cultural, political, and economic resources. The racial attitudes and prejudices of white people (both conscious and unconscious) are the ones that receive dominant expression and systematization in common language, cultural messages, social mores, institutional practices and policies, cultural artifacts, etc. None of us could begin to identify all the ways white racial attitudes have been perpetuated, applied, and transmitted. So white people continue to have greater access to good schools, jobs, housing, and so forth. Social indicators from salary to life expectancy repeatedly reveal the advantages of being white in the United States. And this racist system, if left unacknowledged and unchecked, is self-perpetuating.
As I said before, any person, of any race, may harbor racial prejudice, consciously or unconsciously. Any person, of any race, can view or treat people differently based on race, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or not. All of us do this to some degree. Not all people are capable, however, of racism in the broader, systemic sense. In the United States, racism is something imposed and perpetuated by white people to the advantage of white people.
What is white privilege? “White privilege” refers to all those advantages, both big and small, that white people receive, and people of color do not receive, on the basis of race. Nearly everything in our culture is created to work in our favor or, at the very least, not to work against us as white people. We may be disadvantaged in other ways (e.g. as a woman, economically), but as white people we receive privileges on the basis of race that people of color do not receive.
If you are a white person, it is crucial to your anti-racist education to become increasingly aware of white privilege and to explore its consequences.
One of the most popular introductions to this concept is Peggy McIntosh’s short essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (also here). I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing with an open mind and give it some serious consideration. You may also refer to the movie “Mirrors of Privelege”:
Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KYJl0PECv8
Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJ8f1eLZ1cs
Part 3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjfhXHHzKHc
Part 4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVu9dfXTeSY
Part 5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjMw7CF2cjA
There are many more resources on this topic, like Tim Wise’s book White Like Me. Among others, here’s a nifty little cartoon about white privilege by Barry Deutsch.
One of the reasons it’s important to understand white privilege is that an anti-racist can sometimes put it to practical use in good ways. Consider #30 on Peggy McIntosh’s list: “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility [among white people] for either position than a person of color will have.” A white anti-racist can take advantage of this when educating fellow white people.
Does anti-racism only lead to “white guilt”? Perhaps you are feeling uncomfortable. You are not being asked to dwell in perpetual guilt, nor should you. Anti-racists consider that an obstacle to real progress. Joseph Barndt explains:
[I]t needs to be recognized and doubly emphasized that the reason [for identifying and understanding white power and privilege] is not to take people on guilt trips. Guilt is the least useful and least effective motivation for working against racism. Ultimately, guilt is debilitating and incapacitating. Religious leaders and psychologists tell us that the only useful response to guilt is to go to the forgiveness table and be restored, set free to struggle against that which caused us to feel guilty.
We [white people] need to exchange our guilt and shame for anger at racism, anger at the structures of systems and institutions that are set up to favor us. It is important to keep going back to our definition of racism…. We must become absolutely clear that these privileges and rewards come to us automatically, whether we ask for them or not, whether we agree with having them or not…. The purpose of our becoming aware of our privileges is not to make us feel bad, but to become more aware of that which we are struggling to change. (Understanding & Dismantling Racism, pp. 108-109)
We do not need to feel guilt for wrongs we have not committed or condoned, like taking people captive and subjecting them to slavery, and no one expects us to. If we feel guilty for wrongs we have committed or condoned, like allowing racism to continue uninterrupted and unchecked, the solution is to turn around, commit to change, repair the wrong inasmuch as we are able, and move forward. This is all that anyone asks. “[F]eelings of guilt and shame start to fade,” Beverly Daniel Tatum confirms, when we begin forging a new, positive white identity through anti-racist action.
What can I do next?
Read. A great anti-racist book for beginners, Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, is probably available at your public library or local bookstore. The appendix, “Getting Started: Resources for the Next Step,” will provide even more reading recommendations on contemporary racism, the history of racism, anti-racist action, and anti-racist books for educators and children. We hope to mention and recommend more books here on this blog in the future.
As you’ve seen above, there are also many resources available for reading online. Check out the links on the side of the page. Among other items you’ll find this starter guide by Robin F. at Stuff White People Do. See also “Racism 101” at Resist Racism.
Watch & Listen. Books are lovely, but they’re not your only resource. The movie “Mirrors of Privilege” was linked above. Tim Wise has a speech about white privilege on YouTube. (For those who don’t mind crude language, check out comedian Louis C.K.’s bit on white privilege and Aamer Rahman’s on “reverse racism.”) Be on the lookout for other movies on racism and race relations, like “Race: The Power of an Illusion” or “Ethnic Notions.” You may also find podcasts and other audio presentations.
Discuss. In the beginning, it’s probably best to focus on listening and asking questions. One of the tasks for us, as white people, is to root out our misguided, knee-jerk defensiveness and dismissiveness and learn to believe and trust people of color. Gradually build up mutual dialogue, relationships, and community with other anti-racists. As you progress, reach out to other white people and help educate them.
Apologize. Early on, I realized that despite my best intentions I would probably make all sorts of mistakes that might hurt people, and I would have to be willing to apologize, learn, and change. If you make a mistake, make a sincere apology for your own behavior. (At the same time, don’t go overboard apologize on behalf of all white people to every person of color you meet or befriend.)
Be Attentive. You never know when you might have an opportunity to interrupt racism.