(Unfortunately, this post has been linked to by a white supremacist site. Instead of providing a forum for their foulness, I’m shutting down comments on this post.)
Unfortunately, I lost the link that inspired this. But I recently saw a post by a conservative about “reclaiming” the word racist. It went on to list a collection of reasons why he was a racist. The gist of it was that all of us dirty liberals were the real racists – because there’s no possible reason for us to support things like affirmative action, welfare, etc., unless we really, deep down, believe that minorities – particularly blacks – are stupid animals incapable of taking care of themselves.
It’s typical bullshit. So I’m responding in my own way. Because, you see, I am a racist. I’m not proud of that fact – but growing up in a deeply racist and sexist culture, you can’t avoid absorbing racist and sexist messages and attitudes into your worldview. And the blogger who inspired this is, like me, a member of the privileged elite. The difference between us is that I at least try to notice the effects of my privilege. I don’t support social justice programs like affirmative action, welfare, and job training because I think that poor black people need help because they’re less smart than me: I think that people like me have unfair advantages that we rarely appreciate, and that everyone deserves the same advantages that I’ve been lucky enough to receive. But however idealistic I am, however commited I am to social justice, the fact remains: I am, to my shame, a racist.
- I am a racist – because I never noticed all of the unearned privileges that are given to me until someone pointed them out.
- I am a racist – because even after learning about the unearned privileges
that I recieve, I still don’t notice them.
- I am a racist, because I have grown up in a culture that, at every turn, teaches
me that to be white is to be better, and smarter, and I have absorbed that lesson.
- I am a racist, because I instinctively react to members of minorities with fear.
- I am a racist, because I live in a sunset town.
- I am a racist, because I believe that I deserve the success I
have, even though I know people who are more smart, capable, and
talented than I am never had the chances that I did to
be successful, because of the color of their skin.
- I am a racist – because I am a white man who has directly benefited from
the unfair preferences that have been directed towards me all of my life.
- I am a racist – because every day, I benefit from the denial of
basic privileges to other people.
- I am a racist, because I do not notice the things that are denied to people
who are different from me.
- I am a racist, because I do not notice the advantages that I have over
- I am a racist, because even when I do manage to notice what is denied
to people of different races and backgrounds, I don’t speak up.
The point of this isn’t just to do a sort of “walk of shame”. The
point is that I am an incredibly lucky person, who has benefited from
all sorts of things – from where I was born, to the color of my skin,
to the background of my parents, to my gender. I have recieved, and
continue to receive benefits because of those, and many other factors
that have nothing to do with my own merit. And except for
very rare occasions, that goes unremarked, unnoticed.
People like me think of ourselves as the default – as “normal”
people. We consider the incredible advantages that we receive to
be normal, unremarkable. We don’t notice just how much we benefit
from that assumption of our own normality – the benefits we
receive fade into invisibility. We don’t even notice that they exist. And
then when someone who doesn’t get those benefits
has trouble, we naturally blame them for not being as successful as we
The underlying theme of people like the jerk who inspired this
post is: “I made it by myself, without any help. So
they should be able to make it by themselves, without any
But that’s bullshit, because none of us “made it by ourselves”. We’re
the beneficiaries of the system we live in.
I grew up in a wealthy town in NJ. We didn’t consider ourselves
wealthy – but by comparison to lots of other people, we really were.
I went to a very good school system. We complained about it a lot:
the textbooks were too old; the equipment in the science labs were too
beaten up; the classes were too easy, and so on.
When I was in college, I got to teach a summer program for top
students from schools in Newark, Camden, and Jersey City. And I
discovered that my students went to schools where they didn’t have to
worry about their books being too old – because they didn’t
have any books. I mean that literally: in their english
classes, they didn’t have books, because their schools had
never been able to buy new books since it opened – and the
books had long since fallen apart. They didn’t complain about the
lousy lab equipment – because their schools had never had
science labs at all. How could people coming from schools like that
possibly hope to compete with students from a school like
mine? I didn’t admitted to college over people from their schools because
I was smarter. I got admitted into college over people from their
schools because I was richer and whiter.
And when my students went to the campus bookstore to buy
basic supplies like paper and pencils, the people who worked there
followed them around the store – because what would a
bunch of poor black kids be doing in a bookstore if they weren’t
there to rob it?
I write this math blog for fun. How did I get the background to do
it? I come from a highly educated family. They taught me to read
before I even started preschool. I’d learned about statistics from my
father when I was in third grade. I learned about algebra in sixth
grade, even though my school didn’t teach it until 8th or 9th. I
learned calculus in my freshman year in high school – even though my
school didn’t teach it until a senior year AP class. I was learning this stuff
long before the school taught it to me; and my parents made sure that
they bought a house in a very expensive school district where there would
be things like AP classes. My parents paid for me to go to college – which gave
me the time to take courses not just because I needed them to graduate,
but because they covered things that I wanted to learn, just for fun.
How could a person from a family that just managed to scrape by,
who lived in a school system that couldn’t afford textbooks for the
basic classes, much less the AP classes, how could they compete with
me? It’s damned close to impossible. Not because they’re any less
smart, or any less talented. But because I’ve had an absolutely
uncountable number of advantages. Every day of my life, I’ve been
given benefits which helped make it possible for me to become who and
what I am. I’m here partially because I’ve worked damned hard
to get here. But that work, by itself, wouldn’t have gotten me to where I am,
without luck and privilege.
People like me need to remember that. We didn’t earn what we have
all by ourselves. We may have earned part of it – but only
part. An awful lot of what we have is built on privilege: on the advantages
that we’ve been given because of race, gender, wealth, and family.