Alison's take on "everyone is racist and sexist"

First of all, I would like to make it known that by myself I figured out how to give Walter a profile photo. Stinky had nothing to do with it.

Second, let me weigh in on this racism and sexism discussion. It was actually a conversation that Meghann and I had that inspired Walter's blog post to begin with--I told Walter about the conversation and said we should blog about it. The "everyone is racist/sexist" thing has just become easy shorthand for Walter and me--it's one of those things I've believed for so long that I've forgotten how I got here, or what it felt like not to believe it.

Actually, I do remember how I got here. One significant turning point was a race relations class that Walter, Jay, and I took at Tennessee Tech. Maybe I'll blog more about this class at some point in the future--it was a truly transformative experience.

Anyway, I hear what Meghann said--both here and in our in-person conversation--about how disheartening this statement is. The odd thing is, I mean it as a kind of encouraging statement. I guess one version of what I mean is, we're all people of goodwill, doing the best we can here, and yet we're all carrying some of the messed up baggage of our culture. Part of our job is to try to get rid of some of that baggage. But I think what a lot of us end up doing is denying that we're carrying any baggage at all.

Peggy McIntosh, whose great essay on white privilege is in our list of links, distinguishes usefully between "individual acts of meanness" and "invisible systems conferring unsought...dominance." Most white people I know identify racism only as individual acts of meanness, and they assume that if they don't do those acts, then they aren't racist. What McIntosh points out is that most white people benefit on a daily basis from the invisible systems that confer dominance on them, and most men benefit from similar invisible systems. If we're benefitting from the systems and not actively trying to change them, then we're perpetuating racism and sexism. Maybe that's a better thing to say than "we're racist and sexist."

When I say, as I often do in class, "Everyone raised in a racist and sexist culture has been shaped by that culture," I'm not implying that we're all out there doing individual acts of meanness, but I am suggesting that our ways of seeing, our feelings of comfort, our interpretations of the world are probably pretty racist and sexist. And we will have to challenge that cultural training on a consistent basis. We'll have to develop resistant consciousness.

Here's another great Peggy McIntosh quote: "I have met very few men who are truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them."


Walter said...

one thing i'd like to add/alter: i wish that sentence read "if we're benefitting and not actively trying to change OURSELVES, then we're perpetuating racism and sexism." (or as christie might say "change our conditioned thoughts.")

it may seem nit-picky, but i can't stress enough just how important that distinction is to me. having the ability to actively change something outside of ourselves is to automatically walk a slippery slope of power and privilege.

that's a big (and old)discussion in itself, or course, and i don't pretend to understand it. But i have found, within myself and my artwork, that things tend to work better whenever i've been asking "how can i change myself?" rather than "how can i change the other guy?"

in other words, to meghann's question as to "how to combat them if we just ARE these things," i'd say you can't combat them UNLESS YOU ARE those things.

Walter said...

in a totally nother world,

alison: gimme some more concrete feedback on the brochure text.

christiemckaskle said...

I don't know if I've been clear enough that I actually agree with the starting point of all this - (Meghann might be dismayed at just how much). It's just that recognizing the difference between individuals, their individual conditioning, and all of our collective conditioning is - for me - the way out. No, not out - through. I don't even have the power to change my own conditioned thoughts, but if I'm aware of them and of the fact that they are not the truth, they become harmless, and I don't pass them along as if they were the truth. (Again, I think of the guy in "A Beautiful Mind" who learned to stay aware of the difference and not feed his disease by buying in to it or feeding it with his interaction.) If I'm aware of them they have no power over me. If I'm not aware of them, they run me. Consciousness is not finished evolving, so there's no need (in my view) for despair. Especially since I have this built-in way to help speed evolution along by doing just what Walter says here, focus on changing ourselves (or become aware in those places we can't change all by ourselves).

Anonymous said...

Said anonymous set down with family over the MLK holiday and listened to his all white family rant about "their holiday" along with much anger about the "loss" of presidents day to be named after "a violent activist". Anonymous calls event "Dinner with my racist family."

Anonymous strongly suggests Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's books Racism in the Post Civil Rights Era and Racism Without Racists. Bonilla-Silva is 'Research Professor' at Duke University. Anonymous does not think the terms 'color-blind racism' and 'white supremacy' to describe most people classified as white in the U.S. See Wikipedia also for an excellent discussion of race.


Anonymous said...

>First of all, I would like to >make it known that by myself I >figured out how to give Walter a >profile photo. Stinky had nothing >to do with it.

In a related note, SmokingGun.com has uncovered startling revelations about the real computer literacy regarding the author of the acclaimed book _Catching A Wave_.

Maig said...

I have enjoyed the talk on racism and sexim... the sad truth of the unavoidable. I really liked the statment of how we are all people of goodwill doing the best we can...and our job being to shed some of our baggage and be better and not just deny our baggage. It all makes sense. I think it is equally hopeful as it is disheartening. But tricky...because I do get down down down about it. I want to find a balance between enjoying my roots and the beauty of some of my cultural progamming but yet...not be a shitty, thoughtless person- rise up and challege myself in new ways. And by shitty thoughtless person I mean thinking I am being thoughtful person or seeing the whole picture or making a choice to be me instead letting society's fear and programming decide that for me. Does that make sense? Umm but not really because I am doing the best I can. and I want to shed the unuseful layers of me that don't having anything to do with well being for anyone. Right?. Right.

Maig said...

Ohhh! I just read the comments...I should have done that first. Silly me. So much more light on the topic. I LOVe what both Walter and Christie said. It makes me feel tingly inside in so many ways. The BIG (old) discussion of changing ourselves....yes- I've heard of this one. I struggle with this one. It's a tough cookie but necessary to examine and I really like the way Christie put it...being AWARE. Actively knowing the healthy and non healthy way you see things. It's hopeful right? Not despairing right? Even though it still makes me cry so much. Anyway- I'm BABBLING! I don't understand it but I WANT to!!!!! I want to feel peacful. I don't want to cry. I want to help make it better and when I feel that way...I say to myself...over and over sometimes - if you don't like it -don't do it. don't let yourself be that person or do that thing...then try to find a way to help...even if it's just positive thought and few little prayers. Sometimes it's just deciding not to cry about it and get out of bed and just do my job. Now I have more fuel and light for THE question to continue to ask myself...How do I change me?!? Like the famous quote...BE the change you wish to see in the future.

John Verba said...


It's an interesting discussion, but as a "white" son of a coal miner who's raised his now-teen kids in the inner city of DC, I find the discussion so academic and/or guilt-focused that it lets people who really could make a real difference simply wring their hands from afar.

As my 14 year old daughter blurted after reading some of Peggy McIntosh's list: How to dodge bullets without insulting the person who is firing them. : )

I mean...Wellesley? Would anyone go to Wellesley looking for someone who pulls their own strings and truly challenges the prevailing paradigm?

And if you were a white guy who had the power to, let's say, hire 100 black people or open a successful training program or develop and maintain processes that create hope where little exists, and you say, "Nah...that would involve me using my privilege"...um...uh huh. What's the *real* intent there? To take on something too big to achieve and that you're certain you can't even make a scratch in by talking about it? That goal would then seem to be to actually make sure NOTHING changes.

And, really, when you try to teach even the people who can open doors for others that it's wrong to do that, and rather encourage them to sit around reading Baldwin and feeling bad, is that simply rampant cynicism...or something much worse, really?

And I put quotes around "white" up there because I'm concerned we don't fit the stereotype and don't do what/think what folks of our complexion are expected to by some, though I'm confident some mindreader or other will let us know that we do but don't know it. For some, all people who look the same should be the same, after all.

And instead of asking how to change yourself or how to change the other guy, asking "How can I help and what do you need me to do?" -- and then doing it -- can, you know, be faster than meeting to discuss considering getting together to debate examining additional analysis of "the problem."

: ) Or dream bigger, establish milestones, and use all that privilege to counteract the efforts of those who use it differently than you. Either way, good luck, and be relevant.

John Verba
Washington DC