His really dark skin means he’s dangerous. Her wide nostrils remind me of a monkey.
As abhorrent as these statements are, they are thoughts I’ve had. It’s hard to even call them thoughts, as they occur so quickly and almost outside the scope of language. When I saw the Pew Research Center’s latest poll results showing that whites essentially think we don’t need to talk much more about racial justice issues raised by the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case, I wasn’t surprised.
We white people don’t like feeling uncomfortable. For us, racism is an intellectual experience rather than part of our everyday life. We do what we can to avoid it.
My own racism disgusts me. When I first realized it was there, I did what most white people I know have done. I felt “white guilt.” I made it about me. I wanted to apologize to anyone I could on behalf of all white people. I wanted black people to tell me how to make it better. I wanted to be one of the good white people.
I can’t be one of the good white people. Or, rather, I can’t be as good a white person — as good a human being — as I’d like.
I’m a racist, or at a minimum, I have ugly thoughts when I encounter brown people, because I’m a white person who has never lived somewhere that wasn’t almost entirely white. We humans make snap judgments about life all the time using faulty reasoning and emotional decision making. Shankar Vedantam, a science correspondent for NPR and former columnist for The Washington Post, calls this the “hidden brain,” in his book by the same name. The cognitive processes that include racist stereotypes and a desperate need to rid ourselves of discomfort happen so quickly we are typically not aware of them at all.
Without a doubt, the murder of 17-year-old Martin merits righteous indignation. When the Zimmerman verdict was announced, my well-meaning progressive friends were horrified. It seemed like everyone wanted everyone else to know they thought it was awful that a young kid was killed because that Zimmerman guy was a racist. But it’s precisely because it was a single event, with just two people, that people were able to feel anger and rage about the injustices of it. It was safe. It wasn’t us.
Where is the righteous indignation — the picture to put in the Facebook profile, the calls for legislation, the petitions, the status updates and tweets, the candlelight vigils — about the school-to-prison pipeline? Or, how are we quiet when five times as many whites are using drugs as African-Americans, but black people are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites?
Not only do our brains rely on feelings or ideas we’re not aware of, our brains also aren’t wired to comprehend large numbers. Because we white people don’t experience overt and covert racism in our everyday lives, it isn’t a part of our emotional experience. It remains in the realm of intellectual or logical concepts, and larger numbers hold little meaning. A single young man and a single shooter are concepts we can grab onto.
Because discussions about race make most white people uncomfortable, we want to be done with them as soon as we can. We address the travesty of justice that allows a man to go free after he kills an innocent child. In the process, we distance ourselves from the racism. It is Zimmerman who is the racist.
Sure, we will grant you that racism is pervasive, and we aren’t immune, but, we’re not like him. And, come on, why do you need to keep going on about all of this? We agree he was a bad guy. What else is there to talk about?
Here’s what I think we white people who think racism is bad should do:
• Recognize we have racist thoughts but don’t get sucked into the guilt about it.
• Notice when we feel uncomfortable regarding race.
• Don’t expect people hurt most by racism to solve the problems.
• Don’t be afraid to seem like a jerk — honesty will get us further than trying to be “polite,” and that overeager thing we melanin-challenged people do when we think a black person might like us is embarrassing to everyone involved.
• Identify areas in your life where you can help fight racism — drive brown people to the polls on voting day, loudly boycott companies with overtly racist marketing campaigns, learn about what needs to change in your neighborhood and go do that — in concrete, specific and productive ways.
Feeling guilty about the awful thoughts we have is fine, as long as we don’t dwell on it. Racism isn’t about how bad we white people feel. It’s about people facing life-threatening disadvantages based on perceptions about their skin tone and appearance.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.