June 15, 2020

The problem with racism today is people don’t know they are racist.

Rondall Reynoso
From the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN

When many people think of racism, all they think about are things like slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow. We think about things like in the sign above where people are intentionally equating Blacks and Mexicans with dogs.

This sort of overt personal race-based bigotry is particularly repugnant. 

Most people today find this sort of overt hatred to no longer be acceptable. The people that think like that are clearly bad people in most of our minds. 

I think that is where a big part of the current problem lies. In most people’s minds- Racism is bad and they are good; therefore, they cannot be racist. 

Honestly, I think we all think this way a little bit. We tend to categorize in terms of racist or not racist. I, however, have really come to appreciate Ibram Kendi‘s argument that the distinction is really racist or antiracist. 

The reality is that we live in a country that has racism deeply ingrained in our structures. As I argued in my last article, we have a moral obligation to not be neutral. Neutrality is complicity. If we look at a world that does not offer equal protection and opportunity to all people we cannot just claim to be good people who “don’t see color.” We have to see color and deal with the systemic realities of color in our nation.

As Kendi says, “Racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.” So the line of thinking that says, “I’m good so I can’t be racist” is missing the point. 

Black Lives Matter is not a negation of the value of other lives. It is an affirmation that the lives which our nation has historically least valued do, in fact, matter despite the continuation of that history into the present.

Too many people feel that if they are personally good and don’t personally discriminate then they aren’t racist. That is a good first step. But, we all have implicit biases that we need to recognize. Some of those biases are racial and they are often buried deep down because they challenge our narrative of goodness. We have to actively fight against that instinct within ourselves but we cannot do that if we refuse to admit those biases. Further, we must recognize the biases in our systems and actively seek to correct them.

I think it is in part a problem of empathy. We have a hard time seeing other people’s perspectives. When it comes to the Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter argument. People often can only see the claim that Black lives matter as a negation of the value of white lives. Black Lives Matter is not a negation of the value of other lives. It is an affirmation that the lives which our nation has historically least valued do, in fact, matter despite the continuation of that history into the present.

Empathy comes in again with the idea of White Privilege. We too often can only see how we lack privilege. We can’t empathize with our Black neighbors and see how they are kept from privileges that we take for granted. 

This brings me back to the idea that racism is bad and I am good; therefore, I cannot be racist. I think this way of thinking is why some react so strongly against Black Lives Matter and White Privilege. In their mind, those two ideas would lead to them being racist and therefore not good.

We need to uncouple these ideas. As Kendi argues inequality is about bad policy, not bad people. Yes, there is racism. Yes, we all have racial bias in us. Acknowledging that doesn’t make us bad people… it just makes us people. Certainly, there are bad people who lean into their bias. But, racism is the ordinary state of things. What makes us good or bad people in relationship to racism is if we seek to be anti- the ordinary state of racism.

People who view themselves as good people typically know it is wrong to lean into their racial biases. Either, they don’t acknowledge that bias or they are ashamed of it and try to hide it by being neutral. But, neutrality is complicity with the ordinary state. We must seek to be antiracist; however; we can only do that by looking in the mirror are admitting our ordinary state.



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Rondall Reynoso

Rondall is an artist, scholar, and speaker. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN. He holds an MFA in Painting and an MS in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

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