7:00 a.m. I get in my car. I turn on the ignition. I plug in my phone. I wait for the bluetooth to engage. I press play on my phone. I pull out of my driveway. I’ve entered my literary bubble.
I made a new year’s resolution to not listen to the nonsense sports radio that I sometimes revert to out of boredom. I’m listening to books now. It feels like it’s better for my mind. Today, I’m halfway through a book that my wife recommended. It’s called White Fragility – Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, and it’s a hard listen.
Like each of the mornings for the past week, I grip the steering wheel, stare straight ahead, and try to process the growing realization that I just might be a racist.
It’s a challenging way to start a day. In today’s chapter, Robin Diangelo says this to me: One reason that we don’t make progress with the race problem in this country is that white people don’t reflect on their participation in the problem. You have a binary view about racism. It goes like this: Racist people are bad people. The rest of us are good people.
I stare out the windshield and nod my head. You’re right, I do think that way.
She continues. In your binary view, you see racists this way: they’re mean; they’re old; they’re southern; they’re uneducated. The rest of us, you think, are good people. We’re kind, young (well, young-ish), northern, educated. You’d probably add enlightened and progressive, right?
She knows me well. I reluctantly nod my head. I pull up to a light. I scan the people in the Dunkin’ parking lot. What are they thinking about right now?
She continues. But here’s the problem with your binary view. If someone ever tries to tell you you’re acting in a racist way, supporting a racist system, benefitting from a racist culture, perpetuating a racist construct, you will get very defensive.
That’s true, I think to myself. Go on.
She continues That’s because you’ve been taught that racist means all the things on that bad list. If I imply that you harbor any racist beliefs or that you’ve said something that betrays a racist view, that means you think I’m lumping you with those “bad” people. Naturally, if that’s your understanding of the word, you’re going to fight back.
You’re probably right.
Once you get defensive, of course, you lose any ability to be reflective about your blindspots, your ignorances, your prejudices, or your privilege.
She continues. But racism ISN’T binary. It’s not simply bad guys and good guys. This is what you need to understand. It’s complex. It’s nuanced. It’s subtle. It’s smart. And in many ways it’s kept invisible.
I stare through the glass in front of me. I’m stuck behind a slow-moving transit bus. It carries people of color into and through my town. I need to change lanes. I turn my head to check that blind spot. It’s clear. Where I live, everyone in my lane is white. The only people of color I see on my commute are the ones waiting for the bus, the ones coming to and leaving from their jobs. I live in a segregated community. I work in a segregated school. I’m part of a segregated system in my state. Yes, you could argue that I benefit from that system. I’m a participant. That at least makes me complicit. And if I knowingly go along, doesn’t that actually mean I’m racist?
I pull into my school’s parking lot. It’s 7:15. I have 45 minutes to let these thoughts settle in. Not nearly enough time. Soon, it will be time to teach. My students are learning about how our country was founded, formed, and shaped. Soon it will be time to say our pledge, finishing with the lines, “with liberty and justice for all.” I step out of my bubble. I’m different from when I entered, but I’m not sure what to do with that difference.