While it is crucial for us to condemn and lament egregious acts of racism, sexism and other -isms, and the tragic consequences that often result, it’s always important to look inward at the more subtle ways that we contribute to and benefit from systems of privilege and power. To that end, an author named A. Gordon has a piece at The Root entitled “A White Woman Wants to Get Rid of Her Inner George Zimmerman”:
The truth is, there is more that George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn and I have in common than makes me comfortable. Sure, I would never find myself in the same situation—I would never follow a young black man, I wouldn’t tell a carload of teenagers to turn down their music and I don’t own a gun. But just as Zimmerman relied on stereotypes of black men as dangerous, I also rely on stereotypes. I am kidding myself if I deny the fact that as a single white woman walking down an empty street at night, I wouldn’t think about crossing to the other side if I saw a black man in a hoodie coming toward me. And while I wouldn’t actually tell a carload of black teenagers to turn down their rap, I would probably roll my eyes and consciously or unconsciously make a generalization about “those kinds of kids.”
In short, George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn and I are all the products of a society that saturates us in implicit bias and trains us to rely on stereotypes—to fear, pity or dehumanize folks who are black or brown. The stereotypes of black men as dangerous or stupid impact my actions—albeit in nonlethal ways—just as they influenced the actions of Zimmerman and Dunn. By crossing a street when I see a black man at night, or rolling my eyes at a group of loud black teenagers, I also am dehumanizing someone simply because, given the color of their skin, that person fits into a certain stereotype.
When you grow up in a country with white supremacy ingrained in its past and present, it’s impossible not to be affected. I grew up in one of the whitest states in the nation, with little to base my opinions on other than what was fed to me in the culture. We can all feel good celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., (my mom…I mean I…made a paper mache bust of him for my 5th grade project), but that kind of surface-level discussion, while better than nothing, doesn’t do much to reckon with our own contributions to the system and the present day scourge of racism.
The author offers a couple of suggestions for combating biases that she recognizes “may seem frivolous,” such as changing the culture you are consuming. I want to focus on the harder work of taking these aspects of ourselves head on. That work isn’t easy, but it’s critical. As a friend said when we were discussing the piece, “you have to go to places that scare you.”
Ultimately, I don’t think ridding ourselves of our inner George Zimmermans is a realistic goal in the world we live in. That all or nothing idea is part of what precludes an honest conversation. It’s much better to look at how we recognize and mitigate those biases, and most important, work to undo the damage.
None of this is easy, so these suggestions may also seem simplistic, but they are a start, and sadly more than many privileged people are inclined to do.
Have the conversation. Even just with yourself. Clearly, the first step is recognizing and processing these feelings. I started to engage more deeply with these ideas in college, but I don’t think I fully grasped them until I moved to the Bay Area and spent a lot of time with activists who were committed to this kind of self-examination. It’s scary to admit, even to yourself, that you hold within you some of what you despise. But that honesty is critical for any progress.
Discussing this with others in a safe space can be illuminating. But even the internal dialogue is an important start. Whenever I find myself in situations like Gordon recounts, I make a point of recognizing what I’m doing and thinking about why. It’s a small but important step.
Read. Watch. Listen. Learn. Sometimes outside stimulation is necessary to provide context and get the thought process going. These biases are embedded in our culture, and the other side of the coin that is privilege can be even harder to spot. I’m sure many people can cite Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack as an eye-opener to the white privilege we experience on a daily basis.
It’s an oft-heard and valid complaint in activist circles that people of color shouldn’t be responsible for teaching white people about racism. But white people can seek out the works of people of color to gain insight into both the ways people defy stereotypes and the devastating impacts those biases, and the institutional discrimination that has resulted from them, have on communities of color.
Experience. It’s obvious yet true that you just need to interact with people to chip away at racism. This doesn’t mean the tokenizing effort to have a “black friend,” but to try to put yourself in situations you might not find yourself in otherwise. One of the many reasons I moved to Oakland is that I wanted to be in an area where I would have the opportunity to encounter people of different backgrounds and engage in a more meaningful way. Door-knocking in different neighborhoods around the Bay Area gave me a different perspective on stereotypes than I would get sitting in front of the TV in Maine. Given how segregated many cities are, just moving somewhere more diverse isn’t necessarily going to give you meaningful interactions with people who are different from you. You have to create opportunities.
Work to undo the damage. It’s important to go through the process of mitigating your own biases. But changing the way you perceive people and act on those biases isn’t going to change the mass incarceration epidemic or enact fair immigration policy. No matter how much time and energy you have there is something you can do. Donate. Take action online. Make a phone call. Volunteer. There are a lot of fantastic organizations and movements that are attacking the ways racism has become embedded in our politics and policy, and they all could use our help.
This is a lifelong process that requires openness, patience, and forgiveness. It’s not easy, and I’m not going to claim to be doing the most I possibly can or that I understand all the aspects of the problem. But we all need to put in the work in faith that it is meaningful and rewarding for us and society at large.
Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Please share them in the comments.