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I am racist

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A guest column by Barbara Byram

I'd like to broach a topic that rarely gets openly addressed in Williston—or Levy County or Florida or the United States: racism. Before I get into it, let me make clear two things: first, I am white; and second, being called "racist" is not the same as being called a "bad person." So, without apologies to anyone, let me get straight to the point.

If you're white, you're a racist. That's just a fact of life. The world in which we were brought up was racist (and still is), despite anything our parents or teachers or church leaders taught us about treating everyone equally. So, yes, I'm a racist, too. Racism is much more deeply rooted in our culture, society, and institutions than we whites ever see at work. And because we don't see what's going on behind the curtain, we end up participating in, perpetuating, and sustaining racism, with or without our explicit knowledge or consent.

Individual racism is easy to spot: a self-proclaimed white supremacist intentionally driving his car into a crowd of counter-protestors in Charlottesville, killing a woman; a white person claiming certain neighborhoods are unsafe because they are not majority white, despite any statistics to prove that claim; or a white mother at a public school board meeting objecting to integration of the school her daughter attends on the claim that her daughter will then have to pass through a metal detector every day, when the schools from which nonwhite students will be brought have none.

Institutional and systemic racism are not things that whites ever have to experience personally, so understanding them as problematic is difficult. Take, for example, the fact that lynching is still not recognized as a federal crime, despite 200 attempts to make it one. Or look at how the war on drugs plays out in our neighborhoods, where majority white middle-class neighborhoods get little attention, because most of the drug-dealing takes place behind closed doors, meaning a warrant is required; and most attention gets focused on lower-class neighborhoods where a large portion of homes are multi-generational, with someone in the house at all times, meaning that drug-dealing must be moved outdoors, where it is visible and no warrant is required. These neighborhoods have a higher percentage of nonwhite residents, so they end up being targeted and arrested at a higher rate than whites, despite the fact that the rate of drug use and dealing is the same among whites and nonwhites.

There are things we whites take for granted on a daily basis that we don't even understand have long-standing racist overtones. To us, all police officers are Officer Friendly, there to protect us and make us feel safe. Whites are taught that if we do nothing wrong, we need not fear police; that police only go after criminals. For nonwhites, the opposite is true: law enforcement has always been used as the means for racial control by society. Today young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than young white men. Even for the same crime having been committed. Even when no crime has been committed by the young black man.

We whites need to grasp the concept that we cannot understand racism, whether at the most visible level or the least, because we have never suffered from it on a daily, lifelong basis. And because of that, we are constantly at risk of acting in a racist manner—or ignoring racism and its unjust outcomes on a larger or more profound scale. When the topic of racism comes up, I do not, as a white person, get to shed tears when recounting the witnessing of a racist act or policy. What I witnessed was but one brief moment in the life of both myself and the person unjustly treated. The difference is that I, a white person, get to walk away from that moment and forget it, while the other person has to live that treatment every moment of his or her life. My tears, after the fact, do nothing to change what took place then or will take place in the future.

Also, we whites do not get to define racism, just as men do not get to define sexism. I do not get to say, when told that I just made a racist comment or assumption, that it was not. While my intentions may not have been racist, my words or actions may have been. I don't get a "pass" based on what's inside my heart. Neither do I get to demand an explanation: we whites have ignored centuries' worth of explanations. I need to take responsibility, with an open heart and mind, and reflect on what I said or did. I need to take the responsibility not to do it again.

It's one thing for us talk the talk, but we also need to walk the walk. Can I really claim that I am living in the spirit when I refuse to take the time to see that I am not fully walking in the spirit? Can I really say that I am not a racist when I refuse to listen to someone who is explaining to me how he is being treated differently? How can I be anything other than morally bankrupt and spiritually bereft when I ignore the injustices heaped on others and tacitly accept the benefits that accrue to me (or my family or neighborhood or class) as a consequence?

I don't want to be racist. I want to walk in beauty. And to do that, I must accept what others tell me about their own experiences that differ from mine. I must examine whether I have had a role in or benefitted from the circumstances that led to that different experience of life, especially when the outcome is unjust. And I must do the work necessary to change those circumstances, whether or not I benefit directly, because it is the moral thing to do.

Barbara Byram is a resident of Morriston.