Why the Fight Against Racism has to Start With Owning It

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It’s tough to talk about racism. Whatever you do, lean into the discomfort. Illustration by Alex Fine

I can't remember a time in my thinking life when I wasn't aware of my own racism. I don't say that with shame; it's just a fact—I'm racist, you're racist, even babies are racist. And I suppose I've always felt, particularly as a person of color, that acknowledging this aspect of our very flawed human existence was the best chance to undermine its power.

That's why it's been so strange to hear people insisting of late that they are not not not racist. Even as I write "people," I realize I mean all of us, but especially white folks. From President Trump to law enforcement officials, high school vandals to hipster parents—no one has a racist bone in their body, apparently. And horrors like the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas—in which authorities say a 21-year-old white gunman killed 22 people and injured dozens more after posting a manifesto that decried "race mixing" and a "Hispanic invasion"—only make the unracist more convinced: Racist shooters and extremists are the problem, not real, regular Americans who'd never dream of behaving so abhorrently.

Yet, more and more, I feel I'm drowning in racism—a kind of casual, consistent, visible and visibly mounting racism that's all the more confounding because it won't admit it exists.

What's going on here?

It starts with language. Racism in my world encompasses everything from overt bad acts carried out by avowed racists to the countless instances of unconscious bias I'm sure I commit every day—instinctively opting for the black or brown yoga teacher over a white one, say, or assuming the white guy's our pilot when it's the black guy behind him wearing the uniform. That's how my professors framed it, how my community talked about it and how I've always envisioned it. But this is not, thinker after thinker told me, how many white people experience the word "racism."

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Writer Nadira Hira Courtesy of Nadira Hira, Photographed by David Goddard

"The mainstream definition of 'racism' is when an individual consciously doesn't like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them," said academic, longtime diversity trainer and author of White Fragility Robin DiAngelo. "Who is going to own intentional meanness? That definition is the root of virtually all white defensiveness."

Immediately, intuitively—this idea resonated. And the effects of the disconnect it spotlights are fundamental, clarifying so much of what has confused me lately.

If you define racism strictly as bad people doing bad things to people who aren't like them, then anything short of that can't be racist. And any discussion of your racial bias—even philosophically—becomes an attack on your character. So, though I may be hurt by something you've said or done, bringing it to you automatically amounts to calling you a bad person, in effect making you the victim.

"This framework beautifully protects the system of racism, exempts virtually every white person from the society they're living in, breathing in, swimming in, and exempts them from taking responsibility for all the messages they've absorbed," said DiAngelo. "I don't know if you could've come up with a better way for white people to protect ourselves from the responsibility of racism than reducing it to this simplistic formula of an individual with conscious malintent."

In the "bad acts by bad people" model of racism, words don't matter.

Reading President Trump's now infamous tweets telling "The Squad"—U.S. Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—to "go back," I couldn't imagine calling those tweets anything but "racist." Then a friend—a progressive white Brooklyn man in his thirties—confided that while he found the tweets' "love it or leave it" attitude deeply "un-American," he didn't understand the "racist" label. This makes more sense to me now, because of course 45 didn't explicitly say anything about the congresswomens' races. But, as I told my friend, the racism was in whom the president was telling to love it or leave.

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Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib respond to President Trump in July. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

I won't be the first or last person to point out that it was four women of color President Trump targeted, all of them American citizens, three of them born in the U.S., and at least one whose American ancestry I'd bet stretches further back than his own.

Despite years of animosity, has the president ever told Bernie Sanders to go back to Poland, where the senator's father emigrated from? Had Hillary Clinton won the White House and told Trump to go back to his mother's native Scotland, how would that've gone over? Simply conceiving of racism as a matter of extremes kept my friend from seeing what he now calls obvious—that because of their race, these women were targeted in a way they would rarely or never otherwise be. And a thinly veiled attempt to twist their desire, right and obligation as public servants to speak out—to engage, frankly, in the American experiment—into something sinister and anti-American could only be called racism.

In the "bad acts by bad people" model of racism, "joking" excuses just about anything.

Revelations of some American law enforcement officials' Facebook activity have been hard to read for a whole host of reasons. In the secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents detailed recently by ProPublica, posts by some of the 9,500 members included memes of sexual violence against Ocasio-Cortez and, alongside the photo of a drowned migrant father and child that went viral in June, a question—"have y'all ever seen floaters this clean"? This on the heels of an investigative series by Reveal about the hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers who belong to "Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook" and the release of the Plain View Project, a disturbing database of thousands of derogatory (and public) Facebook posts and comments by current and former police officers from eight U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Dallas and Phoenix.

What's perhaps most striking as I've scrolled through all this hate, though, is the tone—so often light, mocking, like buddy comedy banter. "This vile idiot needs a round...and I don't mean the kind she used to serve," wrote a now-former Louisiana police officer in a July post featuring a fake news story about Ocasio-Cortez, while the ProPublica piece points to one member of the Border Patrol Facebook group encouraging agents to throw a "burrito at these bitches," meaning the congresswoman and another Latina colleague, Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso. And the Reveal series touches on a detective in Houston's Harris County Sheriff's Office who belonged to a closed Facebook group called "The White Privilege Club"—one of his posts was "a meme about an elderly African American woman confusedly responding to a reporter's question by naming a fried chicken restaurant." Ultimately fired after the posts came to light, the detective appealed "and defended his behavior. 'If you remove the black female out of the picture, what's racist about it?'"

I actually laughed the first time I read that question—at the sheer gall. How clever to turn it around on the accusers, as though they were the ones with a race problem because he, the detective, could just as easily remove race; the stereotype—the racism—didn't exist for him. But there's racism (and sexism, and classism, to name a few) throughout these posts.

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A Ku Klux Klan member in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Getty/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP

Does this mean, then, that race can't be funny?

When I put the question to Mo Amer, a comic and former Gulf War refugee known for his Mo Amer: The Vagabond Netflix special and for touring with Dave Chappelle, he recalls performing for U.S. troops in Kuwait and Iraq in 2009. He'd already been the first Arab American refugee comedian to perform for U.S. and coalition troops overseas nearly a decade before, but post-9/11 concerns for his safety led to canceled dates and a bit of reticence in his act.

Until this tour. Though Amer was still a refugee, he decided he'd lay it all out. His opening line? "My name's Mo—short for Mohammed. Surprise, bitches!"

That's a joke. A comic performed it, earnestly, in public. To an audience full not of people like him, but of servicemembers used to seeing people like him as interpreters, victims, the help, even the enemy. And they laughed—"That was in war zones," Amer said. "It was fascinating to be so up front right out of the gate. And see that these guys wanted something, not vulgar, but real."

Unless humor's your job—and you don't mind doing your material in front of all comers—race jokes are not for you. What's more, there's a good chance yours are racist jokes. Take "hipster racism," that Millennial brand of relaxed race "satire" in which everything is forgiven—from nonchalant stereotyping to the actual N-word—because everyone's (supposedly) in on the joke. This, it turns out, is just racism. And calling it a "joke" won't give you cover.

In the "bad acts by bad people" model of racism, there's no need to talk about racism—or even race—because we're not bad people (i.e. racists).

Nowhere does this do more harm than with our children. On May 23, 2018, four white teenage boys—on the eve of their graduation from Glenelg High School in suburban Maryland—spray-painted the school grounds with more than 100 racist slurs and symbols, including "KKK," "F--- Jews," and, in an attack on their black principal, "BURTON IS A N____R." (They spelled it out.) They called this their "senior prank," and by the time The Washington Post's deeply reported piece about the case ran in July, the boys had all been given a combination of probation, community service and consecutive weekends in jail for the hate crime.

Reflecting on the incident, psychologist and educator Beverly Daniel Tatum focused not on the children, but on the parents. In court, the father of one of the boys had spoken about his own experience with the KKK, how the Klan collected money after church in his neighborhood growing up, but he'd never told his son any of it. "He felt it was his fault," said Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. "And he's saying—it wasn't like we said hateful things, we don't have these ideas. But we didn't talk about why this stuff is hateful. We were silent on the subject."

It's a trap that parents, especially well-meaning white parents, fall into easily. In an effort to bar racism from their homes, they bar race. Which effectively means any discussion of our country's fraught racial history is out of bounds, as well; it's too complicated to approach without some understanding of and comfort with race. Yet kids can't actually avoid race in their lives—they're inundated with race messages from friends, school, media. And in remaining silent, parents simply ensure their children will be subject to every influence on race but their own.

"I often get parents who say—oh, my child never mentions race. She's color-blind," said Tatum. "And I say—not color-blind; she's just learned to be color-​silent." That lesson comes early, in Tatum's experience. A white preschooler might see a dark-skinned person in her largely white neighborhood and ask, "why is that person so dark?" or "why is that person so dirty?" (It's common for white children this age to associate dark skin with dirt.) "And the first thing that parent is going to say is 'shhhh'—they'll hush the child," Tatum said. "But the kid's not making that statement because she is prejudiced. It's just an observation, and yet that observation is being silenced, which leads her to wonder—what's wrong with what I said, what's wrong with what I observed, what's wrong with that person?"

Hard as it is to imagine, there's practically a straight line from that hypothetical little girl to the boys of Glenelg. And the cost of our failure to engage is kids who are so removed from essential parts of our history—as one boy put it in the Post story, "I never really understood the symbol of the swastika"—that they're reenacting the worst of it.

So—what's to be done? For starters, try to see yourself—and others—as clearly as you can.

When I shared the Glenelg boys' story with my husband, a white man from suburban Maryland, I knew he'd be appalled. But his take was more nuanced than that. There were very few people of color in his childhood school universe, but his class took educational trips to plantations and learned as much as any of us about the history of slavery. Looking back, though, he said he realizes he never identified with the enslaved people on these outings. He didn't see himself as a slave master either; he just existed in a sort of ambient whiteness in his historical imagination. "I wish someone had said to me—'Look down. Imagine your hands are black.' That would've changed everything."

Empathy won't simply appear, but it's worth working for, particularly when you've rarely had to embody other viewpoints. "I've heard white men talking about themselves being now the most marginalized," said Carolyn Helsel, an ordained Presbyterian minister and author of Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism. "And I laugh. But for them it's very serious. So rather than reject that feeling of oppression, I encourage them to move toward it: Feel how that feels; it's not very good. Imagine feeling that every day of your life. How might you be a different person? How might that impact you? It lets them connect to the experience of others."

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A supporter holds up a T-shirt at a “Make America Great Again” rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 1, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Know that you're biased—how could you not be when study after study says we all are? That isn't a condemnation or insurmountable obstacle. But it does mean that change won't always feel great: "I wish I knew who said it—when you're used to 100%, 98% feels oppressive," said DiAngelo. And even when you think you're your best—when you are literally in the midst of practicing goodness—you can still be racist.

Helsel remembers looking forward to the syllabus for a feminist theology course in seminary, then being disappointed that it was full of authors from around the world. "My initial reaction was—I just wanted feminist theology. And the assumption was that I couldn't learn from these other perspectives, that they were different from me and that I couldn't relate. The man I would later marry was standing next to me, and he said, 'I think that's where feminist theology is going these days...It's not just white women.' It was this revelatory moment to see myself as a white person who was preferring white people. It was not something that I had noticed before."

All to say, come from a place of compassion for yourself and everyone else—and assume goodwill, even when that's hard to do. Playing gigs in rural Southern towns early in his career, Amer said his hotel room was searched during a performance—"Just for being like, 'Mohammed, checking in'" —and he heard more than once, "You're pretty funny for a sand-n____r." But after shows, people from these same places would invite him to come over for a beer or barbecue. "This happened to me outside Beaumont, Texas," said Amer, who's called Houston home since he came to the U.S. in 1990. "They lived in Vidor. Vidor [is historically] a haven for the KKK. But immediately it felt like, I'm hitting something special here. Whoever you encounter, it's really important to be so sincere and so honest and so forthcoming with your own experience that it's hard to hate you."

We're in this together. And so much of whether we progress or regress depends on embracing what's hard to hear about ourselves and trusting that most people, like us, are striving to be good. From there, it's a question of exposure. Remember those racist babies I mentioned? We commonly assume that racial bias forms out of negative experiences with a given racial group, but 2017 research from the University of Toronto indicates that babies as young as six months show a preference for people of their own race—likely because the vast majority of faces they've seen are the same race.

Starting early—building a deliberately diverse, dialogue-rich environment for children—should be a no-brainer. And it's imperative to keep it up as kids age. "Younger white people have been given no skills whatsoever to navigate a very nuanced social dilemma," said DiAngelo. "They're living the most segregated lives, but because the entertainers and musicians and athletes that they like are people of color, they have a false sense of relationships across race that they're not actually having in their real lives."

Don't let that be your kids—or you. When race comes up, on the news or in your neighborhood, tackle it head on. Aim not just to be around people of other races—at work, on sports teams, or in a class or two—but to build genuine relationships. And use every resource you can. Knowing Tatum's background, a neighbor of hers wants to organize a group of white women friends to read the author's book, then have her speak. But books and documentaries—even scripted TV—can offer invaluable history and insight no matter your neighbors. (Recommendations include Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's Racism Without Racists, Ijeoma Oluo's So You Want to Talk About Race, California Newsreel's three-part PBS series RACE–The Power of an Illusion and modern slice-of-life sitcoms Kim's Convenience and Netflix's One Day at a Time.)

Asked for his suggestions, Amer shouts—"Food!" For those of us who can't travel the world, there's no better way to immerse ourselves in culture than sharing a meal. In Amer's words, "It's also hard to hate anyone on a full stomach."

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A protest against President Trump’s visit to El Paso, Texas, on on August 7, 2019. Mario Tama/Getty

Whatever you do, lean into the discomfort.

It's tough to talk about racism. So Helsel encourages a mindset shift: Anticipate the gratitude you'll feel as you evolve through the difficult conversations you're willing yourself to have.

It takes courage to stand up to a friend's racist joke. "But if you do not interrupt it," said DiAngelo, "you have allowed it. On the one hand, you avoid conflict. On the other, you collude with racism. Which choice are you going to make?"

And it hurts to face one's own racism. Though my racial bias as a woman of color isn't backed with "legal authority and institutional control," as DiAngelo reminds me throughout our chat, it's important to me to be as accountable for it—just as a human being—as I'm asking others to be for theirs. I can pinpoint the moment this idea coalesced for me.

I had to be about 10 or 11, waiting in the car outside a Dunkin' Donuts while my mom ran in, when three teenagers—two boys and a girl—emerged from a nearby store. They were ebony-skinned black kids, the girl's hair in long braids, and in my memory I could hear them chatting raucously and slapping the side mirrors of each car they passed before I really saw them. But who's to say if that's truth or infill? What I do know is that as they got closer to me—though it was high daylight on a busy intersection with my mother 30 feet away—I suddenly felt such fear, a nerdy little target for these menacing big kids traipsing through the parking lot like they owned it.

So I locked the doors.

In the instant the locks clicked, I knew both that they'd hear and that I'd done something really, truly hurtful. I remember the young girl's voice—"Did she just...?"—as they came, finally, to flank my mother's car. And the boys' laughter echoing as they walked on. I don't think I've ever felt so horrible again. Though I can't say race is the only reason I felt threatened that day, I've held that moment close these last 20-something years to remind myself how easy it is to hurt, how naturally we do it and how primal it feels.

We're not all shooters. Most of us will never come close to such hatred in word or deed. But the pain we cause matters, too—because it is ubiquitous, and accepted, and so terribly insidious. And every second we spend denying it has consequences; the potential for hate to take hold in our children, families, communities and countries grows in lockstep with our cowardice, our refusal to name it and face it.

So be brave—only in owning the impact of our deep, inherited racism can we hope, eventually, to hurt less.

Nadira Hira is a Newsweek contributor and a longtime culture writer. Find her on Twitter at @nadirahira.

Why the Fight Against Racism has to Start With Owning It