by Jonathan Krall
This is an essay about hope. I am a student of the Grassroots Alexandria Anti-Racism Working Group. This area of study gives me hope that we can address racism more honestly and effectively than in the past. For example, I have learned that my previous understanding of racism was based on socially acceptable disinformation. White people, like myself, have been telling ourselves a story about racism that let’s us off the hook. When I abandon that story, I face conflicts between socially-acceptable misperceptions and difficult truths. Recently, a good friend gave me some pushback. I was told that my current view, that racism is utterly pervasive and (almost) everyone is complicit, cannot gain widespread acceptance. If, however, we embrace a paradigm of truth and forgiveness, ‘everyone is complicit’ becomes a bit easier to accept. It is certainly more honest and, I will argue, much more useful. But it will only work if we stop freaking out over the ‘racist’ label and get on with the hard work of truth and reconciliation.
These are some of the ways that my thinking has changed.
Old: Racism = racial prejudice.
New: Racism = racial prejudice + power.
This is central. White nationalists are offensive and dangerous, but they are not responsible for the fact that Black people in Alexandria, 21% of the population, receive 36-37% of traffic tickets from the Alexandria Police Department. Where is the prejudice? It’s in the data. Who has power? City Council and the Chief of Police. We, the voters, also have power. With power comes responsibility.
Old: Racism is caused by the occasional racist interloper.
New: Racism is baked into a system controlled by the powerful, including the body politic.
Old: Racial disparities happen.
New: Racial disparities are immoral.
For many white people, these words might be difficult to read. Two more examples might help.
Old: Ignorance > racist attitudes > racist policies.
New: Power > exploitation via racist polices > racist outcomes > racist attitudes.
I as a white person, am not blameless, but I am not all that powerful either. Instead of feeling guilt, I feel a responsibility to speak truth to power and to oppose exploitation.
Old: Racists are bad people.
New: Racism affects everyone, so labeling some people ‘bad’ doesn’t help.
Old: Some people are ‘bad.’
New: Almost everyone is traumatized.
Forgiveness begins with self-forgiveness. Healing, like learning, takes time. In 2019, I was taught that Black people couldn’t be racist because they don’t benefit and have little power. In 2020, in How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi reminded me that Black people are not powerless and that we all need to take personal responsibility for our racism. Yes, Racism is a system supported by powerful people. Yes, to the degree that I benefit from the system, and to the degree that I have power, I am responsible. But racism is also personal. If I say or do something hurtful, I am responsible for that too.
Old: Intent matters.
New: Impact matters.
Old: Things are basically OK.
New: Racism crops up daily and is hurtful.
Who has the power to experience and describe the impact of anti-Black racism? Black people. This simple truth is so difficult for many white people to accept that Robin DiAngelo needed to write an entire book about it. A local non-profit that helps with post-incarceration re-entry, OAR (Offender Aid and Restoration), so needed to protect its Black returning citizens from pervasive racism that it spent thousands of dollars to bring anti-racist education to Northern Virginia. The “racial prejudice + power” framing comes directly from my OAR training.
This new (still new to me) everyone-is-complicit approach has the potential to bring white folks and Black folks toward a common understanding. To gain this common understanding, however, white people need to accept the reality of white privilege. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but we can be uncomfortable together.
Following the example of my teachers, I’ll talk about myself. Previously I thought of myself as ‘not racist, but not perfect either,’ meaning that, for example, I might stupidly mistake a peer for ‘the help’ because of the color of his or her skin. In fact I am a product of a white upbringing and all of the resources, expectations, and bad habits that come with that. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with ample resources and high expectations. I am saying that those resources are distributed unequally because of systems set up by powerful people. I didn’t set up the system, but I did benefit from the system.
Old: I didn’t set up the system. I am not responsible.
New: I benefit from the system every time I am welcomed by society instead of eyed with suspicion. I have a responsibility to give back.
Old: I’m not racist.
New: Usually I am complicit. Sometimes I’m also anti-racist.
When I first learned this material from my friends in OAR, we were told to not run out and say ‘I’ve got it! I understand! Everyone is racist!’ That’s by way of saying these truths are difficult to articulate, especially while many still think racists are so few in number that we can somehow be rid of them and while racist systems persist even when there are no obvious racists present. If I’m not connecting, I apologize. If this essay is at least intriguing, I encourage you to join our monthly Anti-Racist Working Group. At the time of this writing, we meet each 3rd Monday at 7:30 pm.