I have, at times, been criticized for employing “extreme” rhetoric in order to get my point across. Most recently, I received a plethora of angry comments on a Facebook post where I stated that all white people are racist — a statement I will continue to defend, even if it means inviting more angry responses.
Frankly, we white people cannot do anti-racist work while also exonerating ourselves from complicity in racism. No matter how “nice” and well-intentioned we are, white people are part of the problem. That’s because racism doesn’t require white people to intend to be racist; it just requires us to live our lives in a system of white supremacy without questioning it.
The process of confronting your own racism is difficult. It feels like an attack on your character and ethics. But shutting down conversations about race because they make you feel hurt is exactly how white fragility works to maintain systemic racism: “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves… [that] function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
Basically, we make it so difficult to talk about race that nobody wants to do it at all. And by not acknowledging the elephant in the room, white people can entirely blind themselves to their own participation in racism.
However, flipping that narrative — starting from the assumption that you were trained to be racist, instead of starting from the assumption that you weren’t — allows you to enter into a more productive headspace. Instead of defending yourself out of fear of being associated with racism, you can start recognizing the racist patterns of thought and behavior that you were taught, and you can interrupt those patterns.
When I said that “all white people are racist” on Facebook, one of my commenters patronizingly asked me if “little baby Leslie” was born a racist, too. The question was meant to be a taunt.
And yet, it got me thinking: if I wasn’t born racist, how did I become one?
In my mind, this is the exact question white people should be asking. It captures the complexity of the situation, rather than reducing racism to a flat dichotomy of intent or non-intent. It allows for an articulation of why all white people are personally responsible for racism, while also NOT implying that we all actively choose to be racist or that we have no capacity to change.
Let me show you what I mean with a personal example:
I learned racism when I was a toddler seeing representations of people of color as bad guys on TV. I learned racism when I got into kindergarten and was punished 40% less often than black children. I learned racism when I was rewarded for being able to count to ten in Spanish as a child, while Latinx students in my class were punished for speaking it. I learned racism when all my favorite book and movie characters were white (for example, one study found that out of 30,000 film characters from 2007-2014, 73% were white).
I learned racism when my school had a textbook for every child, and when I saw images in those textbooks of “explorers” who looked like me, rather than pages filled with the revisionist history of people who committed slavery and genocide against my ancestors. I learned racism when my dialect was considered “correct” grammar. I learned racism when I could enter my school building without having to walk past a security guard.
I learned racism when neither of my parents ever served prison time for minor drug charges. I learned racism when i was taught that the police and the FBI were on my side. I learned racism when I saw all my government representatives were white like me. I learned racism when I was told that lazy black mothers abused welfare. I learned racism when my grandfather told me that Mexicans stole his job.
I learned racism when I claimed in my ninth grade history class that Barack Obama was a terrorist because his middle name was Hussein — and not a single adult told me I was wrong. I learned racism when the same black president had his citizenship called into question over and over again. I learned racism when nobody told me I just needed to "get over" the fact that my ancestors were enslaved for 400 years because, after all, we had a black president. I learned racism when I never, in my entire life, found myself in a classroom where I was the only white person.
I learned racism when I was never expected to lighten my skin, relax my hair, or wear a weave just to look “beautiful” or “professional.” I learned racism when I experienced a 15% lesser chance of being raped than a Native woman.
I learned racism when, as a student teacher at a high school, one of my Latinx students said I was treating her differently and I brushed it off as her being mad about her grade instead of evaluating my own actions.
I learned racism when I sat in graduate seminar after graduate seminar, being taught African American literature and black feminist theory by white professors, in rooms full of mostly white students. I learned racism when I was rewarded more than students of color for talking about race issues in my assignments.
I learned racism when I posted about racism on Facebook, and wasn't banned for hate speech even though black activists are regularly banned for the same thing.
I learned racism when I didn’t suffer for my race. When I didn’t even have to think about myself as a racialized being.
So, dear (mostly*) white readers: how did you learn racism?
*According to university demographics, 60% of UO students are white.