Are White People Racist?

I’ve pondered whether the above title is the best one for this post, but it is the original question that prompted the thoughts, so I guess it will do, though I hope that before we’re done here I’ll have at least explained why I think this is an ultimately unhelpful question to ask.

Though I don’t typically make it a habit to involve myself in contentious conversations, it does occasionally happen.  I spend a significant portion of my time on the internet, after all.  In a forum that I frequent, I recently encountered someone taking aim at the assertion that all white people are racist.  It was an earnest attempt to dismantle the accusation, but it was founded on a specific definition of racist that isn’t applied by the communities that typically make this claim.  There was some back and forth from both defenders and detractors of the statement in question, and it quickly became clear that the the definition of “racist” was the key point on which all the arguments hinged.

On one side, the argument was made that the term “racist” is a derogatory one, and on that basis to argue that an entire class of people could be described as such is both logically incorrect and deplorable. Given the classic definition of “racist”–a person who harbors feelings of superiority over or overt animosity towards members of another race–this is a reasonable position. It is literally true that you can’t describe every white person as harboring direct animosity against people of other racial groups. We rightly see this characteristic as morally reprehensible, and in white communities we have a word for people possessing it: racist.

At the same time, in certain circles that include some (but not all) white people, there is an ongoing conversation about “structural racism.” Within this conversation, people discuss the effects of large scale sociopolitical trends that have brought about white hegemony in the West and how that current reality impacts all people on an individual level. Within this conversation, it’s uncontroversial to point out white dominance and label the benefits it confers on certain groups of people as effects of racism. Beneficiaries of these effects may be passive or active recipients, but either way they exist within the racist system, and so, without making a specific moral judgment on individuals, they inherit the characteristic “racist.”

The two words look and sound alike, but they don’t mean precisely the same thing.

This is an unfortunate reality. Language is messy and imprecise, and it’s a fluid thing that responds to the pressures and needs of the people using it. Two different groups with overlapping membership will have to strive occasionally with confusion that arises from these linguistic happenstances.

I want to set aside that line of thought for a moment and return to the original phrase that sparked the conversation in the first place: all white people are racist.

For me, this is an uncontroversial statement; white people are heavily invested in white supremacy, and we instinctively act in ways designed to perpetuate our cultural dominance. We are racist.  Question answered, discussion over.

At least, the discussion would be over if we really just wanted to deal with the initial question.  However, I don’t think “Are all white people racist?” is a helpful idea around which to center the conversation.  Answering that question one way or another doesn’t accomplish anything practical in the work for increased equity. It’s better, I think, to ask the question of how our behaviors reinforce racist systems so that we can better understand what sociological engineering is necessary to improve equity.  That sidesteps the problem of the defensive reaction that some white people, operating on their communities’ old definition of racism and its derivatives, often have to the detriment and derailment of serious conversations about promoting social justice.

Up to this point, everything I’ve discussed has been implicitly positioned from a white liberal perspective. My experience gives me the privilege of emotional distance from both that group of white people who feel personally attacked when they’re included in descriptions of racist systems and also the people of color who are direct victims of those same racist systems. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the emotional experiences of those groups, so I’m likely to discount them in my own ruminations on the matter.

In the original conversation, one thing that bugged me immensely was the fact that all of the active participants were white folks.  Some were reacting to a question that they felt personally attacked them, and others were trying their best to act as good allies given the situation; even my own input irritated me on some level because I felt like I was also guilty of playing with a question that carries serious consequences for people of color in America.  There’s no really good way to get around these feelings; I think I’ve decided that I have to accept any criticism that might come my way for being part of these sorts of conversations where white people discuss, without outside reference, whether they are in fact racist.  One thing that I do try to do is point to the thoughts and arguments of people of color who have spent time grappling with these same questions.  For white folks, the question of what the proper definition of racism is and to whom it applies are largely academic exercises; at least when you invite commentary from others you’re taking the time to hear how racism (whatever its definition) impacts the people who are most commonly victims of it.

On Fatigue

So, I seem to recall a pretty steady pattern starting at the end of 2015 and moving forward through 2016, the election, and all the worry leading up to the inauguration.  Something horrific would happen in the news, and all of social media would erupt in its various ways, and it all felt like way too much to deal with, so I’d sit down and write a blog post trying to process what was going on.

But that’s not quite right, because I remember reflecting on the Charleston shooting at Mother Emanuel when that happened, and that was back in the middle of 2015.  So maybe my timeline’s a little off.

In November 2015 there was the Paris bombing; that was horrific in the way that any large scale terrorist attack is, but what bothered me so much more then was the response in America that focused so heavily on sealing up the borders from refugees fleeing the violence in Syria.  I think it was around that time that I publicly denounced a certain presidential candidate following months of being dismayed at how members of my family were taken with him.

The year that followed was pretty much an endless horror.  High profile acts of domestic terror rose considerably as the worst of America became emboldened by the Republican party’s race to the bottom.  There was the Pulse shooting.  All the while, the country hit a fever pitch as election season drove us all more than a little mad, and not unjustifiably so.

Then there was Election Day, and it went the way that most people at the time didn’t expect it to go.  We elected a narcissistic, xenophobic, racist sexual predator to the highest office in the land, and a little less than half the country cheered.  I know I was really angry about it; outside of a few awkward phone calls and the holidays, I didn’t speak to much of my family for a few months because I was so angry.  I was angry with them, angry at the system, angry at the country in general.

Also, I was really scared.

Just before New Year’s, I put down some more thoughts about how I felt betrayed by the older generation in this country.  It seemed like everyone’s future was being thrown away to soothe the insecurities of scared, white haired white people.  Everything felt like it was doomed going into 2017, and those of us who were scared of the outcome felt powerless to do anything to stop it.

Then Inauguration Day came and went, and like most other folks I settled into the reality of the next four years.  Forty-five is massively incompetent, as is most of the personnel in his administration.  Republicans technically have a unified government across the three branches, but ideological infighting between the radical conservatives and the moderate conservatives leave them at an impasse on most important legislation (thank God for that small relief).  Despite its dysfunction, the executive branch is able to affect changes that satisfy the xenophobic desires of the Republican base; people of color, immigrants, and refugees are the biggest losers under the current administration, as was easily predicted a year ago based on the campaign rhetoric.  Staving off the healthcare wrecking ball that was the AHCA and its subsequent legislative iterations doesn’t change the fact that lots of people are still being hurt by our white, petty, Republican government.

So the strangest part of the last six months has been that for all of the general miserableness that has erupted in the wake of the election, I’ve not been nearly as on edge as I was last year.  Part of that is the necessary insulation that I think many folks are resorting to just to maintain personal stability during the national madness.  Part of it is simply that it’s easier to fear what you think will happen than what is currently happening.

A big part of it is just being tired.

I’m reflecting on these feelings on the same day that Charlottesville, Virginia is overrun with Nazis who have gathered to protest the removal of Confederate monuments in the South.  Last night a large group of them gathered with torches on the University of Virginia campus and marched around, terrorizing locals.  Today they got violent.  A group of counter-protesters was intentionally hit by a car, and one person has died.  Because it has to be said, repeatedly, this is not an aberration; America has always had white supremacists who are willing to terrorize people whom they don’t like.  The difference now is that these white supremacists are doing so openly, in 2017, without hiding their identities.  They feel like they have a right to act this way, and the biggest change in the national landscape that we’ve seen in the last year is the ascension of a man who has never unequivocally denounced white supremacy or violence against marginalized groups in his short, sordid political career.

I’m horrified by what’s going on across the country.  If not for the decision to get out and walk around the city this morning, I probably would have spent the day glued to social media, looking for updates on what’s happening in Charlottesville.  Still the response now feels different from previous national horrorshows.  So much of my dismay is mixed with plain old tiredness.  We still have three and a half years of this absurdity to weather (assuming that we aren’t drawn into another stupid war because the president has a compulsive need to measure his penis against any and all comers), and I just wonder what we’ll look like as a country by the time it’s over.

So I Just Saw Zootopia

You don’t expect a children’s movie to tackle the subjects of racism and implicit bias, but, well, here we are.

I had heard ever since it came out that Zootopia was a quality Disney movie easily on level with early era Pixar (as someone who grew up watching Pixar movies, it’s weird to realize that that studio’s been around long enough to have distinct eras).  I honestly didn’t expect that to be the case based on the trailers I saw (I think Disney has developed a sneaky habit of obscuring the central idea of any given movie, especially if it’s a progressive one, in its marketing so that people who might be turned off by the idea of a kids’ movie about racism go to see it anyway), but I guess I should learn to have higher expectations of more recent Disney fare.

The story follows Judy Hopps, a bunny who dreams of becoming a police officer in the animal city of Zootopia, and her erstwhile partner Nick Wilde, a fox who skirts the law to make a living because no one trusts foxes.  The plot’s modeled on standard buddy cop movies with Judy and Nick working to find a missing otter which leads to them blowing open a larger conspiracy to vilify predators so that certain folks can consolidate power for prey animals in the city.  Through the power of friendship and learning to look past harmful stereotypes, Judy and Nick crack the case and save the city.

Zootopia Poster

Zootopia promotional poster. (Image credit: IMDb)

The dynamic between predator and prey species in the movie is generally subtle; we first see it expressed in the distrust that bunnies have for foxes specifically, which is overt (and which Judy tries to push back against), before we transition to the city where predator and prey animals apparently live in harmony, masking the more systemic divisions (again expressed mostly in the way Nick is distrusted by pretty much everyone).  You have a positive example of a predator holding a position of status with Mayor Lionheart, but if you catalogue the major characters of the movie, he’s the only predator who stands out as an authority (and he’s eventually disgraced for his part in trying to cover up what’s happening to other predators).  Clawhauser, the leopard stationed at the front desk of the ZPD central precinct, is comic relief and something of a chew toy for other officers, and Nick is a con artist.  I get this weird sense that Lionheart’s presence as the mayor is some sort of predator tokenism (and also an easy set up for a lion-and-lamb visual pun with Assistant Mayor Bellwether).  When you add in the fact that most of the criminals and henchmen that Judy and Nick encounter are predators, you start to see how the movie’s playing into an old trope in human stories of casting minorities as a threatening subclass (it’s established that only ten percent of Zootopia’s population are predator species).  It’s only subverted in the last act when Judy and Nick finally piece together who’s behind the predators turning savage.

The obvious metaphor is that predators represent Black people, but it’s not a perfect analogy.  Trappings of Black culture are largely absent from the construction of the world, and the voice cast is overwhelmingly white (Idris Elba and Octavia Spencer are among the cast, but Elba plays the water buffalo chief of police Bogo and Spencer’s role is a regrettably minor one).  A joke about the inappropriateness of hair touching is built around Nick feeling Bellwether’s wool when she’s distracted.  It’s little creative decisions like these that dilute the comparison, probably with the intention of keeping it from becoming so overt that the audience would become uncomfortable.  Of course, a less cynical look at these creative decisions is that Zootopia was made with the intention of being a more intersectional film.

Besides the overt prejudice against predators, you also have the parallel examples of bias against rabbits presented by Judy’s struggles to be taken seriously as a police officer.  This subplot seems designed to reflect the difficulties women face in the workplace; Judy’s stature makes everyone doubt her capability, and she has to repeatedly demonstrate that she’s the best just to get a seat at the table.  We get to see that Judy is better able to sympathize with predators because of her own setbacks, but one of the best moments in the movie comes when she lets her ingrained biases push her to blame predators for what’s happening to them before she and Nick figure out the actual culprit.  Judy is someone who is entirely well-intentioned, but in a moment of insecurity she falls back on narratives she’s heard her whole life.  It’s a good moment that highlights how insidious implicit bias is.

Zootopia is currently on Netflix if you’d like to check it out.  I’d definitely call it an hour and forty minutes well spent.

So I Just Saw Welcome to Leith

There’s a documentary, Welcome to Leith, currently on Netflix that’s about this little town out in rural North Dakota called Leith.  It’s a tiny locale with less than thirty permanent residents and a footprint of only about three square miles.

It’s also where a prominent white supremacist tried to establish an intentional community of white supremacists back in 2012.

The documentary tells the story of how the town’s residents fought with the white supremacist, Craig Cobb, to try to keep him from legally taking control of Leith.  It’s a fascinating story, mostly because of how it demonstrates this immense tension between two groups that are trying to act within the law.  Cobb comes across as a man who is very keenly aware of where the boundaries of the law are, and he’s seen operating just within them for the majority of the documentary.  It’s a frustrating situation for the residents who strongly dislike Cobb’s open hate speech, but who have no legal recourse because he’s not breaking any laws.  Even more terrifying for the residents is the fact that Cobb quietly bought up multiple tracts of land within the city and deeded them to other prominent members of the white supremacist community.  The fear that hangs over the whole saga is that Cobb’s efforts might serve to legally establish a haven for white supremacists against the wishes of the residents who were already living in Leith.

Welcome to Leith Poster

It’s a documentary, but it feels like a horror movie in a lot of ways. (Image credit: IMDb)

We’ll skip the suspense here, since these are events that have already happened: Cobb was eventually arrested for terrorizing multiple members of the community after he and a supporter walked around Leith with loaded weapons, making aggressive comments towards people who confronted them about their actions (extensive footage of the incident is included in the documentary).  Cobb spent several months in jail before striking a plea deal which saw him released and placed on probation with the conditions that he was banned from owning any firearms for the rest of his life and that he was to have no contact with the victims, effectively barring him from returning to Leith.  Wikipedia notes that at present, Cobb has given up ownership of all the plots he had previously purchased, though several of them are still in the possession of other white supremacists.

Now, this is definitely a chilling story.  The idea that a small community like this might be vulnerable to legal takeover by extremists is a scary one, and I’m relieved that Cobb was never able to carry through on the threat he made by buying up so much land in Leith.  What strikes me as most remarkable about this story though is the sharp divide between the locals and the white supremacists.  It’s made clear from the beginning that no one in the community or the surrounding area trucks with explicit racism.  The nearly all white members of the town (only one resident of Leith seen in the documentary is Black) speak against Cobb and his associates in no uncertain terms; this is highly commendable.  What’s interesting though is that this is a highly rural, largely insulated community.  If we look at the likely political ideology of residents of Leith, they’re probably all very conservative (if you look at polls for this year’s presidential election, Donald Trump has an average margin of support over Hillary Clinton in excess of twenty percent in North Dakota).  Given the political discourse of this year’s presidential election, it’s probable that many of these same residents who are so adamantly opposed to the flagrant white supremacy on display with Cobb and his ilk also find Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric appealing.  It’s no secret that Trump actively courts the alt-right (which is where white supremacists and neo-Nazis reside on America’s political spectrum), or that his voter base is made up of white people with no college education living in more rural communities.

Given all those factors, I’d be curious to see the political climate in Leith this year and whether the people who tried so hard to push white supremacists out of their town four years ago are now backing a presidential candidate who cribs heavily from the same.  I want to believe a close brush with explicit racism might inoculate people from doing such a thing, but I don’t know.  At least one of the people involved in the Leith story readily used the standard “I’m not a racist” line about not caring whether a person is white, black, green, red, etc. without irony in one of the interviews from the documentary (this kind of platitude is fine as far as it goes, but it points towards colorblind ideology, which simply doesn’t take into account the biases that people bring with them into interactions with others who look different).

All these are mostly idle thoughts though.  If you’d like to check out the documentary, it’s available on Netflix.

On Race And The Mother Emanuel Shooting From A Southern White Guy

I have an informal blogging policy that goes something like this: I’m going to write about what I want to write about, and I’m going to be okay with not always writing things that people want to read about.  If you click through to read something of mine, that’s great!  I love connecting with people with common interests.


Mother Emanuel AME Church. (Image credit: Pretty Terrible; click the picture to see Natalie Luhrs’s roundup of stories about the shooting)

At the same time I prefer to only write about things that I want to write about, I also try to maintain a small list of things that I will not write about for various reasons, ranging from issues of privacy to wanting to avoid clickbaiting to just not having the mental energy to deal with stuff in a way that’s worth someone else’s time.

For example, I’ve been debating with myself all week about whether I should weigh in on the Rachel Dolezal scandal.  That’s a complicated situation in a lot of ways, with intersecting factors like Dolezal’s fundamentalist upbringing that was likely abusive and the recent rise in public consciousness of transgender issues which too many people are incorrectly conflating with Dolezal’s cultural appropriation.  Seeing as I’m a cishet white male ally who didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist home, I don’t really have any personal axes of intersection with that story, and I feel like anything I could say would run the risk of being redundant or irrelevant.  I was going to let it go and focus more on things like the fact that E3 happened this week, and by most accounts it wasn’t absolutely horrible.

Then Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Jackson, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson were murdered at their Wednesday evening prayer group by a domestic terrorist who explicitly declared that his actions were racially motivated.

Again, this is a story that, like many people on the internet, I’ve been following since I heard about it.  Again, I’ve been unsure if I wanted to say anything about it beyond the scattered instances of commiseration and mourning I’ve participated in through my various online social groups.  I’m trying to be an ally, and that’s a complicated thing, especially when this time, like so many others, I’m able to more easily identify with the aggressor than the victims.  I’ve spent my whole life living in the American South; I am steeped in the toxic culture of Confederate nostalgia.

When I was around twelve years old, I visited my grandfather for a week and listened to him incessantly refer to black people using exclusively the n-word (he made a joke about Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon 4, saying “The n- died,” when his wife asked about what had happened while she was doing something in the kitchen) and then turn around and tell me that there was nothing inherently wrong with them.  As a somewhat more assertive adult, I sometimes wish I could ask him why he talked about black people the way he did if he really believed that.  Racism’s in my family.

My fraternity claims as its most famous alumnus Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy who explicitly said that the constitution of the Confederacy was founded on the idea that white people are inherently superior to black people and slavery is the best system for preserving that order.  Because our primary purpose is practicing rhetoric and oratory, we have an award named in his honor for our most distinguished speakers, which we display prominently in our meeting hall at the University of Georgia.  Until very recently, the makeup of our active membership was embarrassingly white.  Racism’s in my education.

In the town where I live, there are the wealthy white areas that are either associated with the university or located in our neighboring white-flight county, and there are the poor black areas that represent the majority of Athens’s permanent population.  Even in one of the most progressive towns in Georgia, the divide’s pretty evident.  Racism’s in my home.

I understand the sentiment that drives a person to kill people who look different from them.  It’s an insidious, and to many white people, invisible part of our culture that we so desperately don’t want to acknowledge, even in cases like the Mother Emanuel shooting where erasing the factor of racism makes the crime senseless.  Especially because it turns the crime into something senseless, something that we can’t identify with.  We want to say that we are not like that troubled kid.

That’s a bunch of bullshit.

In the ways that matter, the ways that actually lead to someone deciding they’re justified in taking a human life, I am just like that kid.

The only difference is I know it and I spend every day grappling with it.

On Ferguson

Regular readers know that I typically don’t do current events posts.  My main purpose in running this blog is a combination of narrative analysis (I really like stories, and I think it’s fun to pull them apart) and theological pondering (yeah, the theology’s been a little light the past few months, but I am still thinking about it, even if I don’t write as much on the topic).

So just accept that this is a break from the usual routine, and if you come here to read about my obscure thoughts on the last movie I watched or comic I read, then please forgive this brief interlude.

In my regular news reading, I’ve seen a lot of stuff written about Ferguson, Missouri.  Just about every Christian blogger that I follow has had something to say about what’s going on there; Morgan Guyton wrote a good post on the whole phenomenon in the white Christian blogosphere where lots of people have been weighing in on events because they feel they need to (and why he’s not judging people who choose not to comment).  It feels like something a person looking to be an ally to people of color and other marginalized groups should do.  At the same time, there’s a very real reluctance to say anything because part of being sensitive to those same groups is knowing when to keep our privileged mouths shut (this is where I’ve generally fallen on Ferguson up until now; for anyone wondering, I very much doubt I have anything new to say).

While I still feel reluctant to comment, Samantha Field brought up a very good point that I hadn’t considered.  While I’ve been hearing a good bit about Ferguson through my regular news sources, there is a possibility that people I know haven’t.  It often feels that way to me, because Mike Brown’s death was ten days ago, and I’ve not heard a single mention of Ferguson anywhere except by way of the internet.  My students, while definitely not the most news savvy bunch, have said nothing about it (this is surprising to me, if only because racial tensions do regularly flair up among our students, who are primarily a mixture of black and rural white children); more surprisingly, my coworkers have had no commentary.  The nature of my workplace lends itself to overshadowing issues that happen outside school walls during the workday, but this story is just so massive that the fact it hasn’t appeared at work at all befuddles me.  I can’t help at least thinking about it in my off time, but not once yet has Ferguson crossed my mind while I’ve been on the job.  So maybe there are people I know who haven’t heard about it.

Here’s what I understand of events.

On August 9, Mike Brown was shot multiple times and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Brown was black, and the officer is white.  Brown was unarmed.  Following the shooting, members of the Ferguson community, which is over 60% black, congregated for peaceful protests, to which the (almost entirely white) police force responded with full SWAT gear, using tear gas and rubber bullets to try to deter protesters.  There have been reports of looting by some people, but it is a small minority.  The large majority of protesters remain peaceful.  In addition to using tactics intended for controlling riots instead of peaceful crowds, police have also been trying to intimidate reporters into not covering the protests.  Every night, new protests happen, and still the police throw tear gas and shoot at the people gathering.

It should go without saying, but apparently “should” and “do” are two different words, but the police’s actions in these events are appalling.  Everything from the inciting incident, in which an officer shot an unarmed black man, to the methods the police have been using to try to control both the protests and the media coverage, is horrendous.  All evidence points to these crackdowns (which is probably too mild a word for what the police are doing) being racially motivated.

Words fail me at this point, simply because I have nothing else I can offer.  People are angry, and they are trying to express their anger while being treated as subhuman.  The rest of us sitting on the sidelines either follow with rapt attention because this is something that matters, or we ignore it because we can’t be bothered to get angry about these things.

For people who fall into the latter category, it has to be said: this is something that is worth being angry over.


If you’ve not been following the Ferguson story, then your first stop should be the articles linked in Samantha Field’s post, linked above.  This is about a systemic problem with how black people are treated in America, and the most important voices to listen to are black.  Beyond that, check out the #Ferguson hashtag on Twitter (I’m a Twitter noob, and I managed to figure it out).