I used to think racism meant the KKK, lynching, saying the n-word, using slurs to refer to people. Basically, that racists are horrible people.
I used to think not being racist meant “not seeing color” and treating everyone with respect and dignity.
I used to think it was okay to nervously laugh at a racist joke because I didn’t want to be rude but didn’t really find it funny.
This was pretty much the standard fare of white kids my age growing up in a small Minnesotan town. There was one Black family with kids in my school, and they were from Kenya and moved to town to teach at the college.
There was a higher population of Mexican immigrants and Vietnamese and Hmong. But still very small, and the complicated relationship between class and race in our town held these folks as “other,” which is when I learned to use the words “them” and “us.”
We learned about Native Americans in school, as a historical story of battles and “alliances” with European settlers, not learning of present struggles on reservations (which is where you went to the casino).
I hesitate to write about my white perspective, as the number of Black people (kids!!) killed by police ticks up every day, as Asian Americans are being targeted in deadly hate crimes, as American Indians continue to fight for basic acknowledgement in the history—and present—of this country.
I write this, though, anyway, because of the word racism. Defining the word in the way I was taught to define it means we are blind to the insidious ways racism is woven into our entire structure and way of life.
My use of “them” and “us” is racist.
My increased nervousness when a Black man approaches me is racist.
I am racist because I am a white person raised in a white supremacist society.
Words matter, and definitions matter. We cannot fix something we cannot call by its proper name. By shrinking away from the word racism, as a collection of ingrained behaviors and actions that are much more subtle than the KKK, we cannot name things what they are.
If you are white, don’t ask BIPOC folks to explain their trauma to you—research on your own and listen.. Follow BIPOC voices on your social media accounts, and amplify them rather than adding your own perspective on events. Read How to be an Antiracist slowly, with a pen, with an open mind.
Clear your throat and call your actions racist when they are. Challenge your white friends to do the same. It’s going to feel awful—keep going (that’s the point, by the way). Apologize simply and authentically and promise to do better. We have a lot of work to do.
I’m working my way through this list of words that have changed in meaning for me over time.
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