The Heretic Writes: Hey White People: Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt

The thing about racism in America is that the vast majority of white people don’t want to admit that they’ve breathed, lived, and ate racism from the moment they came out of the womb. We have been indoctrinated by our culture, no matter how hard PBS has tried otherwise, to recognize that white-ness is superior. It’s not always overt, but it is in everything we see and hear. Actors of Color are rarely seen in Hollywood or in TV (and, gods, the white-washing of historical drama). White, pale, and thin is the cultural standard of beauty. The heroes that are touted in history books are hardly ever People of Color, and in many states, the state legislators have re-written history books to make slavery a blip in the history of the how the United States came to be.

Let’s face it my fellow white people: we need to admit that we are the one’s with the problem.

I understand why most of us can’t admit this, though. We’re indoctrinated from the cradle, and what you learn as a child is extraordinarily hard to remove from one’s thought patterns. We don’t think of this inherent racism as “abnormal” because it has always been our “normal.”

Let me repeat that: We white people don’t think about this inherent racism, or that we can be racist, because racism has been our “normal” since we were children.

A concept I learned about awhile back is called “collective trauma” and I think it’s an apt concept for what’s happening now. It’s the idea that a group of people, society, or culture can have a collective grief and/or PTSD after a major traumatic event or series of events. There is also a generational element to this as well. The children and grand-children of those who have had this type of trauma can suffer from the effects of the trauma perpetrated on their family when they listen to the stories of their grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors.

In every abusive relationship, there is the victim and the perpetrator. There can also be people who are witnesses to the abuse who don’t say anything out of fear or denial. All of the people involved are damaged by the abuse. The victim has the most obvious trauma of being abused. The perpetrator and those who did nothing, if they admit their wrongdoing or denial, have to deal with the consequences of their actions (or inaction). They also have to admit that what has happened to the victim is real and true. (This is a bit over-simplified, but hear me out.)

White Americans, as a collective whole, have not owned up to the role that our ancestors have played in the abuse and slavery of African Americans, the genocide of Native Americans, and other acts of harm to People of Color. We have to collectively admit that we have done wrong, past and present. We have to admit that we have allowed this racism to seep into our culture and that it has created the United States that we find ourselves in today.

Owning up to this isn’t easy. To really make this meaningful, to really own up to our collective wrongdoing, we have to mean it. We have to without any qualifiers. We have to admit that we were wrong and that we have been doing wrong without any conditions, or “but I’m not racist!” or anything else. We have to admit that what People of Color go through and have gone through are real. We have to say that we’re sorry and mean it. We have to listen and take in the fact that we, collectively, have abused people for no other reason than the color of their skin.

This doesn’t mean that individual people are all bad, horrible abusers that are responsible for specific incidents of their ancestors. What I’m talking about here is acknowledgment of the role that white people have played in the oppression of People of Color and that we, white people, are the ones who need to fix this. We have to admit that we need to change the ways that we think, and the systems that preptrate the violence, in order to make society better.

In short: we need to admit that our “normal” is really “abnormal” and that we need to challenge the powers that insist that the abnormal should continue to exist.

This admittance is only the beginning (as anyone in 12-step can tell you). The next steps are harder because they involve taking a good look at oneself and how we think of People of Color. We have to de-program ourselves out of the collective paradigm.

I’m not writing this to say that I have it all perfected or anything. I’m writing this out of my own experience and my own battles and frustrations with the programming we received from our society. It’s really a constant battle that I fight in my head, especially with the words that come up in my mind when I am out and about in the world. There are still times where racist thoughts will pop into my head, and after my internal WTF, I recognize it for what it is: it is a racist belief that I was taught. I counter this with the new narratives that I’ve learned by listening to the stories of People of Color and what I’ve educated myself about racism. I try my best to make sure that I counter the racist narrative that exists in my head by doing what I can to stop racism in my communities.

But collectively, we’re lazy about this. It’s much easier to lash out and insist that the normal we’re taught is not racist. It takes internal work to counter the racist narrative we’ve been taught. It’s easier to deny that we can be racist and deny the very real abuse that is perpetrated because “that’s how it’s always been.” We don’t want to rock the boat.

Keeping a low profile is easier than creating change.

Seeing People of Color (and those “not like us”) as human beings deserving of respect and compassion is hard. It is easier to point at the “them” than it is to point at ourselves and say that we are wrong.

Inclusion takes time to fully realize itself, but if we don’t admit our role in exclusion, it won’t happen at all.

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