Can White Americans be unracist? Yes, but it way harder than most of them think. That is why when they quickly say stuff like, “I am not racist” or “I do not see colour”, it is a good sign that the opposite is true. Those who have honestly fought against their own racism do not talk like that.
Note: Racism is not just joining the Klan or saying the n-word. Whenever you think or act as if one race is naturally better or worse than another you are being racist.
To overcome their racism people of colour in America have only one wall to overcome, the wall of lies, but white people have five walls:
- The wall of lies: America was built on racism – on slavery and genocide. The lies that made that seem right and good are still with us. You see them in schoolbooks, newspapers, Hollywood films, jokes, even in the stuff your parents and friends say. You hear them so much you think they are true. Few question them unless they are stuck on the wrong side of those lies. And even then it can take years. And even then you might not see through them all.
- The wall of self-interest: Few people of colour stand to gain from racism: it hurts them in society at large and, if they believe in it themselves, it leads to self-hatred. Not so for white people: racism allows them to have higher incomes, lower unemployment, safer streets, better schools and longer lives. On top of that it allows them to live comfortably in nice houses while black and Latino children in dangerous neighbourhoods go to bad schools.
- The wall of the white self: For whites racism is more than just a set of self-serving lies: part of their sense of self worth is built on being white. It makes them feel good because it allows them to think they are better than others.
- The wall of white society: Most whites who do see through the lies and see the crying injustice of it all keep their mouth shut. Why? Because they have to live with other white people and fear becoming an outcast. Racism is not even their fight, right? So why should they suffer for it?
- The wall of shame and guilt: Those who break through all the other walls come to the worst wall of all: they come face to face with the shame and guilt of being white, something that their racism had largely hid from them until now. I know many whites do not believe in white guilt, but it makes sense of too much. And it is not just me: Dr Beverly Tatum, who studies this sort of thing, says it is the shame and guilt that is the hardest to overcome.
Not that anyone should despair – none of this stuff is impossible – but neither should they fool themselves about what is going on.