On unintentional racism


I was meeting with a group of students last week, talking about race, and I did something I was embarrassed about afterward. There was a young woman who was speaking eloquently about some of the issues taken up by their student group Students Together as Allies for Racial Trust (START), which is based at South High. This young woman was wearing a headdress, and I thought for a moment that I recognized her from another story that I wrote when I visited the Somali classes at the same school.

I asked her, “Oh, didn’t I interview you before, when I visited the Somali classes?” She looked at me quizzically, and said she didn’t take Somali at the school. There was a long awkward silence. “Sorry!” I said, quickly moving on to a different topic.

Later, I was flipping through a book that one of START’s coaches, Kate Towle, lent to me, called To Be Free: Understanding and Eliminating Racism. It’s basically a textbook about the history of race and racism in the United States, and provides tools for students to talk about issues surrounding white privilege and other such topics.

One chapter of the book gives various definitions of kinds of racism: institutional racism, overt racism, internalized racism, and unintentional racism, and realized that what happened earlier in the day had been unintentional racism. In fact, I’m unintentionally racist a lot more often than I’d like to admit.

When you have privilege, you can just be going through your day, not even thinking, and all of a sudden—oops! You were racist for a second. You didn’t try to be racist, but you just accidentally do something stupid like think you recognize someone because they have a similar skin color and have their head covered. You might not even know that you’re being racist because when you have privilege, it’s not being thrown in your face all the time—you’re just floating through your existence without ever having to worry about a cop pulling you over because of what you look like, or being denied a loan because of your last name or a hundred other examples.

One insightful thing Towles said to me during the discussion was that people don’t like to talk about racism. I think that’s really true, especially when you’re talking about the unintentional/white-privilege brand of racism. That’s why I feel it’s important for me as a writer to keep writing about these types of issues while at the same time realizing there is a need for writers from different communities to also have their voices heard.

Overt racism is a more popular topic because then we can all just point our fingers at the racists and think how much better we are than them. I remember a few years ago there were a handful of Neo-Nazis gathered in front of South, and across the street there were hundreds of people shouting at them to go home. While I’m not saying that people shouldn’t protest Neo-Nazis when they come to town, I feel in some ways it’s a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. That work is really, for those of us that have white privilege, to look inward and figure out: what could I be doing differently?

5 thoughts on “On unintentional racism

  1. Looking to the brighter side, I’m not sure when the economy will collapse but history tells us it’s inevitable.  Once people realize that food no longer comes from Safeway & McDonald’s folks will no longer have time to come up with and write about concepts like Unintentional Racism.  We may all be starving but at least that will be a relief.

  2. Why would confusing somebody with somebody else be racist?  Every so often at the Coop I will see somebody I think I know and say “Hi” only to realize they are somebody else.  I guess this is just because all white liberals look alike!

    I think you may be over thinking it all a bit.

  3. So, if a woman is wearing a burqa or Chadari, where you may not even see her eyes, would it be racist not to be able to distinguish her from another woman?  Of course not!  In the same way, of course the hijab makes it harder to distinguish one person from the next.  That is part of the point- de-emphasizing the individual.  

    I see this all the time with a group that is not racist- kids.  My child goes to a school where many of the classes are Somali majority.  Some times when I pick her up, one of the Somali girls says good-bye to her, and my child freezes and does not respond.  When I ask her why she did not reply, and tell her she should, since it is rude to ignore somebody, she explains that she just did not know right away which class mate it was talking to her.  She will get the name after a few seconds thinking, but not in that initial instant that would have allowed her to reply in turn.  Why?  She says that without seeing their hair or body shape, they all look so much alike.   And as a kindergartener who has spent her whole life going to school with all races, I really dont think she is confusing her classmates because of race.

  4. Sheila,

    Thanks for writing this. I value this discussion. There was a group in Mpls called Anti-racist action that tried to bring attention to the unnamed white privilege. What you are doing seems similar. Don’t let those white-supremacists comments throw you off from this theme in your writings.I leave my comment anonymous so as not to attract white supremacist vitriol my way.

  5. I can see from most of the comments that many people are uncomfortable with the topic of “white privilege”.  Because we are living in a Western society (that sees itself as multi-cultural) white privilege is something that does need scrutinizing.  Other countries and ethnicities also tackle oppression and racism (and also privilge) however, white privilege is becoming a more dominant ideology because the world is becoming so globablized where Western culture is reaching far more places.  I think the point of Ms. Regan’s article was not to “apologize for being white” but to provide a perspective on what it is like to have white privilege and how that has shaped her understanding of other ehtnicites.  If one wants to compare the privilege of a white male versus a white female, the white male has privilege over the white female.  Recognizing privilege is not a bad thing or a destructive thing rather it is a deconstructive mechanism.  We would not have social reforms made such as the abolishment of slavery and gender equality put into place if society did not collectively attempt to recognize privilege versus oppression.  Racism and oppression do shape our society which is why others believe “race consciousness is normal and that people prefer their own race to others”.  If “cleansing ourselves of racism has become a destructive national psychosis” would stabilizing racism be a better alternative? 

    One does not have to scrutinize themself to the point of avoiding all engagement with ethnic minorites because of how they might act; it is about recognizing where one’s assumptions are derived from and why and how to focus on changing that perspective (only if one can recognize it as negative or destructive).  Some may not call this racism.  Perhaps the discomfort that people feel when reading this article initially is the use of the word “racism”.  I myself did not see Ms. Regan’s assumption as racist because to me racism has always been an inferiority complex (eventually leading to aggresion).  However, I do see Ms. Regan’s actions of recognizing her own assumptions and questioning them, as positive behaviour.  Because to say or think racism is not a factor anymore is the same as assuming that sexism has been abolished, equality between genders is equal, and that the LGBTQ community does not face discrimination.  As I have said, that would be an assumption, and definitely a wrong one.

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