Exploring the racism in my attempt at anti-racism

(March 28th, 2009)


In 2001, I wrote Monologues for a Dialogue: Whites and Blacks and the Living Philosophy of Racism to offer suggestions on how to combat racism. Having since gained a much deeper understanding of institutional racism and white privilege, I now see that this work contained certain racist elements.

As I have focused a good deal of my recent writing upon challenging readers to also be self-critical when questioning the mainstream discourse, I feel that I would be a complete phony if I did not call myself out.

At the age of 25, I had good intentions. What I did not have was a background offering radical analysis of white supremacy. In order to give such perspective in rereading Monologues (and exploring the racism in my attempt at anti-racism), I am adding the following essay as a supplement.

 

It’s been about eight years since I wrote the monologues, and I’m still conflicted as to their worth.

I laugh thinking that this was originally supposed to be a hip hop album. Only after writing the lyrics and recording the tracks did I realize that I had no flow. Needless to say, the project quickly became one of spoken word. I performed the majority of the pieces at poetry joints around Nashville for about a year or so and got quite a lot of positive feedback mixed in with a few negative reactions.

The idea had always been to speak to a younger audience and the hip hop community in particular. Believing that such an audience afforded me the license to be more candid, I first released this book without any disclaimers. Some time after, having become less confident that I had sent the right message with some of the pieces, I added the disclaimer you now see on page six and seven in an attempt to cover both my ass and my conscience.

Obviously, I have the power to change a few of the pieces or take some out all together. Instead, I am offering this essay. I think it’s much more helpful to examine the fact that when I thought of the problem of racism, this is what came out.

 

To a great extent, I started this project in response to the assertion by so many whites that racism was no longer that big of a deal and that blacks should just get over it. I’m hoping that by exploring my own racist assumptions, the next few pages will shed even greater light on the impact racism has had on us all.

Wanting to make a case as to why issues of race and racism matter just as much today, I found myself writing pieces critical of both whites and blacks.

My pieces critical of whites were simply in response to my experience of being white and listening to how other white people talk about black people. It’s no secret that many whites would never say the same things or make the same arguments in front of blacks. I was ashamed to look back at many of the statements I, myself, had made. I felt that addressing these attitudes publicly was important to any dialogue concerning racism.

Because I am white, I never questioned whether or not I had the right to be critical of whites. I assume it was because I was simply writing about direct experiences. Furthermore, I felt that I was trying to be more critical of the philosophy of racism than anyone impacted by it.

 

While I did question if I had the right to be critical of blacks, the more important question may be why I felt the need to be critical of blacks.

While I briefly addressed my intention in the disclaimer, I don’t believe I was adequately forthcoming. If I had been more self-critical, I would have acknowledged that part of me was afraid white people would not pay as much attention unless I appeared more even-handed. And if this were not racist enough, I believe there was another part of me that wanted to scold some blacks for giving white people a reason to justify their prejudices.

This is not to say that these were my main reasons at the time (or, for that matter, my conscious reasons). My main reason was what I stated in the disclaimer: “To not critically address the role of African Americans in the struggle against racism is to pretend that they have no power in that struggle, that they are somehow irrelevant.”

While I still agree with the sentiment of this statement, I now see it more as a nice sounding excuse to say whatever I wanted rather than a justification of specific content.

I believed in my heart that I was respecting African Americans with what I thought were compassionate critiques. I felt that to only address whites would not only dismiss blacks, but betray blacks.

Yet what did I do?

I followed my assertions of white contributions to racism with pointing out alleged shortcomings in the black community. Not only did this conflate the two, it painted any problems within the black community as justifications for why racism is still such a problem. It indeed rationalized racism.

While this was certainly not my intention, intention doesn’t always translate into consequence.

Having asked myself over and over if the pieces made sense, the question I failed to ask was what they were doing in this work. Admittedly, if one were to look at these specific pieces (critical of blacks) by themselves, some of the words may hold some merit. But as part of a greater work identifying racism and then suggesting how we fight it, they were inappropriate.

Ironically, I used positive reactions from black audience members to personally justify such criticisms. What I didn’t take into consideration was that they were responding to these pieces individually and not as part of a greater thesis. If I had performed these pieces in front of the same black audiences and then ended saying, “and this is the reason why you’re a part of the problem of racism” or “this is the reason why whites are still racist,” I would have gotten booed off the stage.

It wasn’t as much about the validity of certain words (as I suggested in my disclaimer), but their context in the entire work.

 

For instance, we all know that statistics can be manipulated to support an array of arguments. The question is not whether the statistics hold up, but the context in which they are being used. One must ask what is being accomplished by offering these figures.

Or look at it this way. If James Brown spoke candidly in denouncing destructive behavior among black male youth, the context is far different than if a Klansman were to offer the same examples up for critique. While the Klansman may (and likely will when confronted) propose that his own denunciation could be seen merely as good advice, it is the context of the entire speech that matters.

In my own notes I used to write the earlier disclaimer, I found leftover the words, “Now, I do acknowledge that my suggestions for lifestyle improvement rested heavily upon black folks. As I’ve stated, a great deal of our racial conflicts today deal with the stereotypes of black America. The elimination of negative perception through living right is not only at the heart of the debate, it is simply good life advice.”

How’s that for getting it wrong? While in the book I stressed the need to break down the weak logic of racist generalizations, there was obviously a part of me that hadn’t been able to follow my own counsel. This work was not merely about “good life advice.” It was about fighting the living philosophy of racism. And to describe this fight as “the elimination of negative perception through living right” not only takes the focus off racists, it heaps the blame for the “stereotypes of black America” on black America.

In this light, it’s not hard to see how disingenuous it was for me to argue that these critiques were nothing new and that blacks had heard this all before, indeed from other blacks. And while it may be true that many black leaders have also railed against destructive and/or apathetic behavior in the black community, their perspectives are rarely ones sympathetic to racism. My perspective though, even if I didn’t fully understand it, was akin to blaming a rape victim for putting herself in a bad situation.

Including these specific pieces the way I did implied a certain amount of legitimacy in our current racist atmosphere. Again, I was rationalizing racism.

Furthermore, if much of what I was saying had “already been said by a voice of color at a podium, pulpit, or dinner table,” then why say it? If the ideas and sentiments were “hardly original” to the black community, then is it possible that these ideas and sentiments were only there for the benefit of whites?

Moreover, suggesting (as I did in the disclaimer) that a black performer could get away with such pieces more easily (if this was even true) was irrelevant as to whether or not the pieces were fair (by themselves) or appropriate for this work. Once more, it’s about context.

Think of the irony here: I was trying to encourage my audience to resist racism.

In fact, my first critique of African Americans was of today’s younger generation for what I saw as a waning commitment to resistance and a lack of appreciation for all the hard won gains of those struggling before them. Of course I didn’t understand that how the victims of racism choose to resist (or even if they choose to resist at all) has nothing to do with the legitimacy of racism.

 

Which brings me to quite possibly the only valid intention I had for including these pieces. It’s not that I never asked why I was writing them. I knew quite well many of the critiques I was making of blacks could just as easily have been applied to whites. I told myself, however, that whites didn’t face the same challenges as blacks. I told myself that it was important to encourage black folks, especially young black folks, to continue resisting and not fall into the traps set for them. I told myself that blacks were carrying a burden that whites did not and that it was important to specifically urge African Americans toward personal progress.

Of course the problem with this argument was that I was telling it to myself instead of to my audience. I could very well have included all these concerns in the pieces, but I did not. I chose simply to be critical, even if encouraging.

I didn’t understand that the burden I was suspicious of was institutional racism. Having focused the majority of the pieces critical of whites on individual racism, I didn’t really grasp racism’s institutional side and how it was linked to overt racism. Sure, I talked about “the system” and hinted a few times that there was more than just individual choice. What I didn’t do was take the time to explore these ideas and concretely explain the origins of this system.

Even in the disclaimer, I merely included a passing reference to “the traps of institutional racism,” having already countered this idea with my previous confession about how “many of my suggestions and criticisms may still apply to both” whites and blacks.

The fact that I was not willing to adequately explore this in my work or my disclaimer implies not just naiveté, but a degree of racist apathy. This type of apathy can only be afforded by white privilege, a privilege I also made passing reference to in the disclaimer but did not fully explore.

I believe that institutional racism is such a foreign concept to many whites precisely because they have never addressed the idea of white privilege.

And why do they not address it? Because they do not have to address it. I could write my whole book and feel good thinking I made a contribution to the dialogue, all the while reaping the benefits of white privilege. Indeed, like most whites, I didn’t understand the concept of white privilege due to my very definition of racism.

In my disclaimer I said that “if I were black, some of my themes might be harder to swallow by whites” and that “if I were black, some of my themes might be easier to swallow by blacks.”

The implication of course was that the respective audiences would see one of their own as being less likely to be racist in their critiques. Yet these assumptions are born out of seeing racism as a problem of us vs. them. In other words, it defines racism in a way that allows whites to argue that blacks have the same opportunity as whites to be racist. In fact, I would suggest there isn’t a white person reading this that hasn’t either made or heard the argument that blacks can be “just as racist.”

The problem here is that white privilege allows whites to have a different definition of racism than non-whites. It’s convenient for whites to think of racism simply as racial prejudice. This way, blacks can be “as racist” as whites. As a result, whites don’t feel so bad about their own racial prejudice. Racism is seen as being universal, a kind of tit for tat.

Yet under this same rationale, a Georgia slave racially prejudiced against her white master was a racist. For which, I think it would be hard to find even the staunchest of bigots to make such an argument.

While whites may acknowledge a definition of racism that in a sense lets themselves off the hook, non-whites understand quite well that the more accurate definition for racism is white supremacy.

Let’s be honest. When we talk about our history of racism, we’re not talking about racial prejudice. We’re talking about a power structure.

Slavery was not just a matter of individual racial prejudice. It was a matter of white supremacy. Jim Crow was not just a matter of individual racial prejudice. It was a matter of white supremacy. Issues of discrimination in employment, education, housing, lending, healthcare, and criminal justice are not just matters of individual racial prejudice. They are matters of institutional racism in the service of white supremacy.

To reduce racism to the definition of racial prejudice takes power out of the equation. It reduces history to the coincidence of mass bigotry instead of a very well structured system of white supremacy.

So when I hear people say, “Yeah, but blacks can be just as racist as whites,” I feel they are being disingenuous about their definition of racism. They are using (as I also did) the convenience of racial prejudice rather than the historical framework of white supremacy.

The privilege that allows whites to ignore this historical framework in their definition of racism is most definitely in the service of white supremacy.

Sure, blacks may possess racial prejudice. But does anyone believe it is equivalent to race-based predatory lending or minority voter suppression?

There is a clear difference between racial prejudice and racism. Indeed, the only time racial prejudice is equivalent to racism is when it is in the service of a racial power structure.

Now many whites may read this and say, “Yeah, but I don’t have any power. I don’t have any privilege.”

To which I would ask, “How do you know?” I wrote this entire work without grasping institutional racism. Many whites, including myself, have reaped the benefits of white privilege without being aware of it. In fact, many whites throughout even our most shameful periods of history made the same claim that they did not enjoy white privilege.

It’s true that many white folks do share a lot of the hardships that black folks face. Of course institutional racism is not the only circumstance at work in society. Furthermore, many whites have such problems despite institutional racism and white privilege, while many blacks have these problems as a direct result of institutional racism and white privilege.

Because I do not have the space to provide a detailed history and analysis of institutional racism, I would encourage readers, especially if you’re skeptical, to do a bit more reading. There are numerous books, articles, and speeches on both institutional racism and white privilege. Take the time to examine these concepts and seriously consider how they apply to your life and the world around you.

You may just find, like I finally did (it obviously wasn’t overnight), that it’s not always about intentions. You don’t have to be a rabid racist to contribute support to the overall structure of white supremacy. You could see yourself as an anti-racist and still enjoy white privilege. You could spend months working on a book that encourages others to reject racism and end up rationalizing certain racist premises.

When you don’t understand or don’t care to understand racism as anything more than racial prejudice, you may be supporting institutional racism (which is most definitely in the service of white supremacy) even if merely reinforcing such context in your own perspective.

And it doesn’t really matter whether you’re cognizant of it or not. In fact, it may be more powerful if you’re not aware. A conscious white supremacist may change his or her heart. I, on the other hand, didn’t fully understand the lingering impacts of white supremacy at play in my own mind.

 

The question was never whether I had the right. You always have the right to speak your honesty. Such a right, however, demands the responsibility to explore that honesty for both its origins and potential folly. I did not take seriously enough this responsibility.

Our lives are made up of both choice and circumstance. Institutional racism is one of those circumstances. Part of white privilege is believing that only choice matters while ignoring this circumstance’s existence. I now see that my criticism of the choices of African Americans lacked the adequate context of the circumstance of institutional racism.

It’s as if I was onto something by addressing racism as a living philosophy, but I just didn’t know exactly what I was getting at. And while I encouraged dialogue and self-critique, I was more concerned with rationalizing my work than doing what I had asked my audience to do in the disclaimer: explore it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing this book as having no value. I’m still very proud of a good deal of it and am impressed that eight years ago I had the insight I did (as I am also embarrassed by how wrong I was in certain places).

Moreover, I do not claim that all the pieces are valid by themselves. I could spend another book (admittedly this essay only scratches the surface) going through this work line by line questioning its merit. Certainly, eight years later, particular phrases and messages seem not only racist (examples include the absence of context concerning institutional racism in what you have and the potentially implied, even if unintentional, generalization in don’t clap) but simply asinine (much of which can be found in both sides).

Nevertheless, despite the fact that this is certainly not the book I would have written today, I believe this work still has a lot to offer (both in analyzing what I did and did not say) toward understanding how pervasive racism really is in our society and the challenges we face in overcoming its manifestations. And while I will surely do my own share of cringing and smiling for years to come upon revisiting this book, the challenge of its title is with you. If this is to be a dialogue, you must find your own way of contributing.

If while reading this book you picked up on these issues of context, you’re further along than I was when I wrote it. If not, I would encourage you to reread it with this context in mind (hence my reason to include this essay at the end of the book rather than the beginning).

I would also encourage you to then apply such context to all forms of racism (my focus was obviously narrow) as well as our other manifestations of division.

Racism is a tool of hierarchical oppression, one of many I refer to as our food chain philosophies. So while it is important to see racism as a problem of white supremacy, it is also important to see sexism as a problem of patriarchy (as well should the same type of lens be applied to issues like heterosexism, classism, jingoism, xenophobia, etc.) Such divisions require more than the simplistic explanation of personal prejudice. They require deep rigor and honesty in addressing hierarchical oppression and power relations.

When such problems become institutional (and overt support is not as important for survival), these philosophies really do take on a life of their own. Only when we grasp this institutional nature will we ever have a chance of stealing the life from such harmful living philosophies.

 

I set out to prove that racism was still alive and well in our world, and I was successful.

Just not in the way I had hoped.

I felt I had all the right intentions. I found out that wasn’t enough.

Intentions do not always translate into consequence. And if given proper scrutiny, intentions are often quite thin.

To my readers, I apologize and offer this essay.

Lonnie Ray Atkinson 2009



2011 Update:

Having gone through the embarrassment of putting together a spoken word performance meant to combat racism only to find racist sentiments in that work years later, I think a lot about how racism is perceived in society. Recently, I was rereading the supplemental essay I wrote to address problematic sections of the above mentioned work, Monologues for a Dialogue, when I realized that in ten years no one had actually approached me regarding these particular issues. In fact, the only material I could recall being personally challenged for its potential racism was something I hadn’t even addressed in the essay – my use of the word nigger.

Initially having questioned whether it was ok to use such a loaded word for dramatic effect, I’ve since asked myself new questions. Why did I not have more of a problem using such sensitive language in the first place? Could that dramatic effect have been more a matter of shock value than about making a point? Could the same point have been made otherwise? Why did I not take the creative steps to explore alternatives?

As there were different uses of the word throughout the work, my own conclusions as to their appropriateness have ranged from perfectly legitimate to carelessly racist.  And while the debate over the use of this word is certainly an important one, I believe there is far more to learn from this particular situation than a mere analysis of my judgment.

Ashamed as I was of the numerous racist assumptions and problematic passages in Monologues, the only thing that seemed to raise eyebrows was my inclusion of this word. This irony has got me to thinking not only about my own use of the word, but also about how the word has been given a new role in the service of white supremacy.

 

To claim that a society is no longer racist, one must show that it is not filled with racists. The focus then becomes on the label of “racist” and how to identify someone as such.

Ironically, much of white America turned to a single word (or rather the use of a word).  Once the embodiment of overt racist expression, this word would now stand as a decoy, as if the nation’s legacy of white supremacy were little more than a collection of verbal insults and racism had been whittled down to this one last derogatory term.  It made racism look both easily identifiable and seemingly impotent.

Today, the use of this word has become the new definition of racism. In some minds, it has become the only definition of racism.

 

The point here is not to focus on other ways people can be overtly racist (coded language, innuendo, etc.). It is to show how racism has been made to look like some kind of team you consciously join, where the uniform is the use of this particular word.

Focusing on the use of a word (which has conveniently fallen out of fashion in polite, white company) allows people to ignore white privilege and institutional racism. Many see racism as an outward display of individual racial prejudice rather than having to do with the power relations within our mainstream institutions.

Instead of nurturing a culture of critical thinking in which we constantly examine our institutions for inequities, we’re tasked with keeping our ears open in case someone says “the word.” And at the end of the day when you haven’t heard the word, you can rest assured that there’s no racism here.

It’s the kind of definition that limits racism to the most bigoted big mouths. Civil rights, however, was not a struggle to remedy hurt feelings. It was a struggle to remedy inequities, injustices, and deprivation of human rights.  Our heroes were not putting their lives on the line with the notion that when people finally quit calling them names they could all go home.

Those who say we are a “post-racial” society must explain how these inequities persist and in some cases have gotten worse. They must either recognize the institutional pervasiveness of racism evidenced by disparities in education, housing, employment, income, wealth, healthcare, incarceration, political representation, etc., or they must revert to disgusting stereotypes which are rooted in overt racism.

Many take pride in not wearing “the uniform” of racism (not telling certain jokes, not saying certain words, not holding certain opinions, etc.) yet are totally apathetic about institutional disparities affecting millions.

Racism has been a part of our institutional diet for so long, we cannot help but show signs of its effects. We must abandon this concept that racism is some sort of uniform you can simply put on or take off, and we must instead begin examining the degree to which we are impacted by and contribute to white supremacy in our different social spheres.

 

While I now take even more seriously the personal choice/literary license of whether to throw around a term that was and is still used to dehumanize and/or subhumanize a person the moment it’s uttered, I am also not someone who believes that enunciating a succession of letters automatically makes one racist.  I neither dismiss the immense power such a word has to hurt human beings, nor do I ascribe it magical powers. Context matters. What I am far more concerned with is the new life that this particular word (and overt racism in general) has been given.  Once, white supremacy was served by more and more people saying such words.  Nowadays, white supremacy is served by more and more people focusing on how little these words are used in order to dismiss claims of institutional racism.

It makes me wonder what “post-racial” arguments will be made fifty years from now. Who knows?  Maybe by then the argument will be that there is no racism because there simply is no way for people to be racist. It’s not really that much of a stretch. Being from the South, I’ve actually heard white people make the case that the infamous racial slur this essay has focused on was not even racist due to specific wording in its fancy dictionary definition.

To avoid becoming that world, and to actually move us toward any semblance of a post-racist society, it will take more than just the convenient, more than looking for the obvious.  Truly combating racism will take vulnerability and courage. And as I learned from examining and re-examining a work that I originally believed to be anti-racist from front to back, it will take more than just good intentions.