I’m a Racist (And So Are You)

This is not as radical of a statement as you might think. The sheer fact that I (we, if you are white) am a white person living in the United States of America benefiting from a system of white privilege makes me racist.

Many people on Colgate’s campus – though definitely not all – are quick to denounce outwardly bigoted incidents as wrong. We all know it is appalling to call a black person a “nigger.” It is ignorant to call a Latino a “dirty Mexican.” It is insulting to assume that all Asians excel at and love math and science. It is offensive to call a Native American a drunkard. Despite the fact that these bigoted beliefs have actually been expressed by people on this campus, many Colgate students and faculty can still agree that these are wrong. Many will stand up against such bigotry. Many will even march alongside students of color protesting such incidents.

However, the area where most white Colgate students and faculty fall short is that they fail to realize how they themselves perpetuate racism in a country that was founded on the fun­damentally racist principle of white supremacy. Beginning from the birth of this country, the American Constitution was written from the perspective of white male slave-owners in a time when Africans and poor European indentured servants were not only regarded as inferior, but also legally considered property.

Whiteness was, and continues to be, valued and exalted as an ideal in regards to intellect, beauty, goodness and motivation (just to list a few qualities). Whites in the United States have historically been the only citizens privileged enough to increase their income, to effectively fund schools and to generally secure positions of power (again, just to name a few benefits). These benefits often go unrecognized and can range from something seemingly benign like being able to find “flesh” colored bandag­es that match your skin tone, to the more consequential such as seeing people of your race positively represented in politics and the media. Either way, the institutionalization of white privilege in the United States has the effect of normalizing whiteness. As a white American, I don’t have to wonder if I am being singled out in everyday situations because of my race, like being fol­lowed around a store by a salesperson or being seen as a credit to my race when I do something well, like Obama has been (even his vice president Biden has stated, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”).

We are all familiar with bigotry: it was seen in the graffiti in the Alumni Hall bathroom during the fall of 2008, in the comments on Trinel Torian’s article a few weeks ago and in ev­eryday conversation. However, few of us have a comprehensive understanding of racism. According to sociologists, racism is the systemic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power (blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians and Asians) by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (whites). This subordination is supported by the actions of individuals, cultural norms and values, institutional structures and practices in society. Although our focus is often on acts of bigotry, it is an institutionalized system of racism that actively suppresses the ability of people of color to advance in so­ciety while simultaneously providing the ground on which such bigoted beliefs are perpetuated.

In contemporary United States, this racism is exhibited through the judicial system, politics, educational opportunities, location of housing, financial benefits from the federal govern­ment, employment and in countless other ways which very clear­ly perpetuate the disadvantages people of color have to live with every day. For example, despite having significantly lower rates of drug use when compared to whites, blacks make up a majority of the population imprisoned for drug related offences. Another example, public school districts that are majority white tend to be given more money by the state.

For those still not convinced, people of color are more likely than whites to be denied housing loans, supported by nation-wide policies such as the Federal Housing Act of 1934 (which, despite the year, is still very relevant to this day). These kinds of policies inevitably decide the communities that people of color can choose to live in. However, for the purpose of this article, I would like to give a more everyday sort of example of one of the ways I am comfortable, affirmed and unquestioned as a result of my white privilege.

A couple of weeks ago, I was really frustrated because of all of the racist slurs around campus. Conversations about the racism and bigotry occupied my entire day. Finally, at 2 a.m. I decided I simply needed sleep. I could not handle thinking about race anymore. And that’s it. I was able to turn race off. I did not have to think about it anymore.

Barely 30 minutes had passed before a friend of color opened my door crying. After I had left the conversation, another inci­dent concerning race had occurred. Unlike me, this friend and others simply could not get away from the topic of race despite trying to seclude themselves. It got to the point where their race literally prevented them from being able to concentrate on their schoolwork.

In order to calm down, relax and just get away from Col­gate after the incident, eight of us decided to go to Denny’s at 3 a.m. (Mind you, this was a group of five black students, one South Asian, one Latina and one white – not the definition of a self-segregated group). We vented, ate, finally relaxed enough to laugh and returned to campus at about 6 a.m. with no time to sleep or finish our work before classes. That day, I was groggy, but I still had my privilege which allowed me to turn off my consciousness of race in order to try to concentrate during class. If something so seemingly arbitrary such as the amount of time spent thinking about race has such a great impact, what is the real effect of actual policies and laws that systematically disadvantage people of color?

Now, imagine what students of color have to go through ev­ery day. Imagine the amount of time occupied by conversations or incidents related to race. Imagine the time taken away from schoolwork, sleeping or just relaxing. Imagine how hyper-aware students of color must be of their own actions because the image they project will be the way in which the white Colgate commu­nity perceives all students of color. Students of color at Colgate cannot forget about their race…this is after all a predominately white campus.

I repeat and stress that it is fundamentally wrong for any white person to deny their racism and white privilege. You can try to deny that you are bigoted, but let’s be honest, even that is not true. (Actually, every single person holds some degree of bigotry, but that is a whole other topic.) It is time that we as white people acknowledge our white privilege and complicity in a fundamentally racist system. We must be willing to rec­ognize that accepting all of our white privileges unavoidably means we are taking away from people of color.

Denial of our racism has kept the campus’s focus wrongfully on protecting Greek Life instead of the issue at hand: tackling the institutional racism on this campus (such as legacy admis­sions, the schools we recruit from, classes offered, lack of diver­sity within the faculty, etc.).

I implore every student and faculty member, especially white, to put aside their pride, stop being defensive and instead advocate for real change. Perhaps begin by examining the way in which you personally have benefitted from white privilege: the kind of neighborhood you live in, the jobs your parents have, your own career prospects, the history curriculum you study in school, the political candidates you can vote for, etc. Perhaps read books such as The Possessive Investment in Whiteness by George Lipsitz or The White Racial Frame by Joe R. Feagin. But perhaps the best and most productive thing we as white people can do it to listen to, try to empathize with and actively support people of color when they speak about racism and work towards change.

Contact Olivia Straub at [email protected].