Note: I wrote this a couple of years ago, and it’s more germane today
There’s an old saw that says the first step in solving a problem is to identify the problem. That’s wrong. The first step is to admit there is a problem. Over the years, I’ve known or had to work with a number of alcoholics and drug addicts. What they all had in common? None of them would admit that they had a problem with alcohol or drugs. They’d tell you how they could quit any time, they were just being “sociable” or it was just “recreational,” and it wasn’t a problem, objective evidence to the contrary. It wasn’t until they admitted it was a problem, that you could get them to start doing something about it. What does that have to do with the title of this post?
One of the guarantees you can make is that when a person or a group is called out for being racist, or for making a racist remark, they will take offense and furiously deny that they are racist. If it’s a public figure, various surrogates (usually of the ethnic/racial group targeted by the slur) will appear on the media to defend them, and excuse the behavior. Another guarantee is the denials that there are any special privileges inherent in belonging to a majority group, often with a counter argument being made that some other group wants or receives “special treatment.” They are all denials. They are not admitting that they have a problem. The problem is identified, but if you’re not willing to admit it’s a problem, you can’t begin to solve it.
I understand that people can and do change over their lives. I know I have. I look back on my younger days with a great deal of embarrassment about the times I laughed at a racist or ethnic joke, made a stupid remark, or even used a racist term. Yes, I was an idiot, and I didn’t think I was being bigoted at the time. As I got older, with more experience knowing and listening to people, I recognized that yes, I was being an ass, and it was bigoted of me. So I made the effort to change myself.
I’ve been also been made aware of how privileged I am. If you’d asked me even 20 years ago if I was, I’d have thought you were nuts. I grew up “working poor,” I went to college on scholarships,grants, and loans, and I worked hard to get to the middle class. How could I be “privileged?” Well, here’s how. When I see a police car behind me flashing its lights to pull me over, I assume I’ve done something wrong, or there’s something wrong with the car. I know the police officer won’t be coming up to my car with his gun at the ready. Unless I’ve been drinking – and I don’t drink and drive – I know I won’t be dragged out of the car and arrested, let alone shot for making “a threatening move.” I’ll get a warning or a ticket, and be on my way. I get to walk through stores and shops, browsing and often not buying anything, and the staff never thinks of calling the police. I’ve never had someone question my right to vote, or been asked for identification. I didn’t see why getting identification was a problem, until I got an object lesson about it.
That’s a short list, and it’s not complete. What I know now? That my experiences, my “normal” are not shared by people of color. It’s not just from the news, but from listening to them that I realize a lot of what I take “for granted” about my daily life would not be true if my skin was a different color. That there are real systemic barriers, and assumptions that are meant to “keep them in their place,” which is not “equal.” So yes, I am privileged, and I see quite a lot of efforts to keep those privileges … for white people. Which they’ll deny are privileges.
I won’t claim to be “woke,” and honestly, I hate that term. I’m sure I still have assumptions that are racist in origin, and at some point I’ll be justifiably raked over the coals because of it. But I admit I have a problem, and I’m trying to improve. That’s the thing we need to do as a society as well. It’s not on black or brown people to tell us how to improve, or that we need to get better. That’s on us. Are you tired of being called a racist? Well, why don’t you admit you are? Stop being in denial. That’s the first step, and then you can maybe start working on it.