The crime of inaction
“I am not a racist.”
The phrase is almost never said in isolation — and rarely meant genuinely. How is it that a simple statement of what one isn’t has become something so controversial?
As a white male, I found this phrase early in life. Most white Americans did. Over the years however, my understanding of this phrase evolved. As a boy, it was merely a statement of fact — and an unnecessary one at that. As children, we don’t really care about the construct of race, and often if we do, it’s because the prejudices of those who raise us has been planted into our minds under the guise of “wisdom.” As a teenager, the phrase became something of a precursor to words whispered to friends after a quick look around the room. Disparaging remarks disguised as “jokes” or “observations” often followed. It was okay though, because we would never say it in front of the people themselves; after all, we would never want to offend them. As an adult, I primarily see this phrase used as a means of backpedaling, or distancing one’s self from a recent deed.
Yet, as a white male, I was almost always able to internally justify such things:
- I mean, what if the person really wasn’t a racist? They could’ve just been a victim of circumstance.
- No one who heard it was offended.
- What if their words were taken out of context?
- It was just a joke. They didn’t mean it that way.
- It was clearly just a momentary emotional outburst aimed at an individual, not an entire race.
The list goes on and on...
All my life I found myself getting defensive on behalf of people I did not know for reasons I could not explain. I kept telling myself that it was because I tried not to jump to conclusions and I assumed the best in people until they proved me wrong. However, in my “reserve judgment” mantra, I was actually leaning toward believing in “white innocence” versus believing those who felt attacked. I did so because I identified with them. After all, I’ve often felt like I couldn’t say certain things or had to “walk on eggshells” in the interest of being P.C., no matter my intent (which, as far as problems go, is quite possibly the most insane to get fired up about). I didn’t want to believe that I was a member of the oppressive group. I’ve always strived to be the hero, so it was hard for me to accept that I was, by default the villain. There were times I felt rage at the thought that people made an assertion about me based not on my actions, but rather on one of my traits that I had no control over (I’ll let that irony sink in…).
In professional wrestling, someone who is a villain is known as a “heel” and someone who is a hero is referred to as a “face.” Throughout a wrestler’s career, they may go back and forth between these personas, which is known as a “turn.” The more common occurrence is a hero turning heel; however, it’s possible for a villain to turn face. As a white male, I was born a villain — I descend from a line of them. Therefore, no matter what my intent might be, the absolute best that I can do is to turn face at some point.
There are several people who will read that and say, “Pssh…maybe you. Not me.” That’s because the temptation for white America is to visualize racial aggression as a direct engagement. Historically it was seen as being the person wearing white bedsheets. The person putting rope to neck. The assassin firing the bullet. Today it’s become the cop using excessive force. The bigot exhaling slurs when they thought the microphone was off. The bigshot on Wall Street using discriminatory practices. So, when we do not fit into those molds, it’s easy to convince ourselves that our hands are completely clean.
…and that’s the problem.
Everyone in the world is guilty of seeking comfort at one point or another. It’s human nature to seek structure and a sense of control in our lives. These are the same survival instincts that led us to seek out shelter, create the concept of the calendar, and build societies. That drive is not in itself an immoral one. However, once that need for comfort is used as the justification to oppress others, remain silent in the face of oppression, or avoid doing the right thing, it becomes a dangerous force. It’s dangerous because comfort is so seductive and misleadingly silent. Comfort is as innocent as hitting the snooze button instead of sticking with your morning workouts. It’s as innocent as going with your old standby meal instead of trying something new. But it’s also as dangerous as looking the other way when you see the signs of domestic violence. It’s as dangerous as not saying anything when someone uses an offensive word in the group chat. Knowing that something is wrong and simply not participating is not enough.
The reason? I think author Ta-Nehisi Coates says it best in this excerpt from “Between the World and Me”:
A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals. “It only takes one person to make a change,” you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the change that would raise your body to the level of equality with your countrymen.
The fact of history is that black people have not — probably no people have ever — liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts. In every great change in the lives of African Americans we see the hand of events that were beyond our individual control, events that were not unalloyed goods.
In other words, social change is almost never achieved strictly by the oppressed. It requires some sort of involvement from those in a position of power, usually catalyzed by an event. Unfortunately, those with power rarely side with the oppressed on the oppressed’s merits alone. Whether it’s conscious or not, this typically stems from a couple things: 1- Your shared power with the oppressor makes you feel a sense of shared guilt, and no one wants to feel guilty, or 2- This means that perhaps no one should have the power that your group holds, but giving up your power makes you nervous. After all, that means that next time you could be the victim, and that’s terrifying. So we remain in stasis, floating down the current of inherited power, convincing ourselves that our lack of action in either direction exempts us from responsibility for the way things are. It’s a win-win. Well, at least for those in the place of power.
I’m a straight, white male, born into a middle-class family in Colorado, USA. As far as social politics go, I damn near hit the lottery. While I might not ever be a millionaire, I have never wondered if I didn’t get a job because of my race (sorry anti-Affirmative Actioners, you can fight me on that point all you want, but employment statistics point to an inherent advantage in my favor regardless of the rare circumstance that supports your stance). While I might have had run-ins with the law, I have never feared for my life during these interactions. I’m not a “Manager,” “VP,” or “CEO,” but I have never had my authoritative tone in professional discussions disregarded as “rantings of the angry white man.” What a luxury I have to feel attacked by the reactions to an action, and not the action itself. How fortunate for me to be able to cherrypick the battles I wish to fight! Yet, I did nothing to earn this—my starting status in this world. This is simply my reality. This is the reality for many white Americans.
So, should I (or you) feel guilty for stepping into the game with these rules already in place? No. My goal is not to shame myself and other white people for merely being born this way. My goal is to bring a level of consciousness to the situation. Over the past few years, I have seen my various newsfeeds blow up with an assortment of politically-charged posts. Many of my black friends post about events in the news relating to racially-fueled violence, while many of my white friends either choose to avoid these topics or post articles that seem to indirectly say, “Yeah, but what about ____?” The prime example I see is #blacklivesmatter vs #alllivesmatter (and eventually #bluelivesmatter). When I first saw #alllivesmatter, my white brain thought to itself, “Yeah! That’s a much nobler cause than just picking one race to support.” To this day, many people in support of #alllivesmatter still view the debate in this light. What they’re missing is that #blacklivesmatter isn’t saying that they’re the only lives that matter. They’re simply saying that black lives matter, too. White lives have always mattered. The American social system is engineered to support that premise. So when someone says, “Black lives matter,” they’re not saying that it’s OK to kill white people, Latino people, Asian people, etc. They’re simply calling attention to something that’s been downplayed or outright ignored throughout American history: Black lives, do in fact matter. Make no mistake, as a white person it’s not fun to be reminded about being a part of the oppressive group, no matter who you are. But downplaying its significance by saying, “Yeah, but what about ____?” is absolutely the wrong reaction. You don’t solve a problem by calling out all the other problems in the world. In fact, that might be the single-most effective method for making excuses to do nothing throughout human history. You solve the problem by taking steps to resolve it. Rarely is the right thing also the easiest thing. (Oh, and sidenote- you know what’s less fun than having your newsfeed flooded with "people complaining about racism?" Being a person who actually needs that to happen on their behalf)
We might just be amid the next wave of social equality movements, so if it feels like all the media talks about lately is racism, maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps it’s a sign that Americans feel like we’re at a point where we can actually do something to change the system. Or maybe they’re just fed up. Either way, the conversation taking the spotlight creates a great opportunity for action. Taking the next step towards social equality will look different for every person, but the willingness to look at yourself independent of your own filter is the necessary first step. That first step likely includes having uncomfortable conversations and calling out those who perpetuate dangerous mindsets — often your friends and loved ones. Regardless, you can be certain of one thing: silence won’t make it all go away, nor will it place us in some post-racial utopia. It could very well do the opposite. With that in mind, what part will you play?