I want to tell you what I mean when I say that racism is an honest mistake, but first I want to be clear about some assumptions I’m making. The first is that I’m contributing to a conversation amongst white people about what racism looks like and what to do about it. The second is that if you’re in this conversation, you believe that racial injustice is a pressing problem, and are truly interested in figuring out how to effectively fight it. If you are a white person committed to racial justice, you’re who I want to talk with for the next few minutes.
Last year, I got an email about an event called “Faith and Doubt: A Day of Reflection for Unitarian Universalist People of Color,” and I got excited. My denomination’s spaces can be very white, and I was eager to support space that lifted up the voices of UUs of color as the leadership of our work in this movement. I quickly went to the event’s MeetUp page and dashed off a comment: “White allies welcome? Want to respect if it’s a POC-only space.” Several days later, I got a response I didn’t expect. One of the other group members replied to my comment, and they used a lot of ALL CAPS to tell me that I was out of line, that I was disrespecting a necessary space for people of color to be amongst themselves. “How dare you?!” they charged, “You do not get it at all.”
Reading over the response, I immediately felt stupid. I thought “Grace, the event is called ‘…for Unitarian Universalist People of Color.’ You shouldn’t have had to ask whether you should go; you were told explicitly that the event wasn’t for you.” I was totally ashamed. But I also felt angry at this stranger. I’d asked a question that was by my estimation a respectful one, one that sought to avoid doing an offensive thing. I had made an honest mistake while trying to do the right thing, and their response felt cruel.
I’m no stranger to this emotional cocktail of shame and anger. I feel it whenever I am called out, or when anyone attributes oppression to white people writ large. I go through several thoughts in rapid succession, things like: “You don’t know me. I can provide several references from people of color who will tell you that I’m not racist” or “That attitude doesn’t help. Why would you attack someone who wants to help?” I hear similar reactions from other white folks, too. When people say “You just lost an ally,” or “Your tactics are only going to turn people off,” or “Wow, she’s so hostile” I understand where they’re coming from.
These feelings are totally natural. Take the last one, for example. Seeing someone’s anger as an indication that they’re an angry person is a normal human response. Social psychologists call it “fundamental attribution error,” and we do it constantly. We pass someone on the street yelling obscenities, and we think they have an anger problem. But when we lose our tempers, we understand it as a result of extreme circumstances and not as part of our character. This is a normal, human way of thinking.
The trouble is that when this normal way of thinking goes unchecked, it has consequences. When we experience it in the context of being called out by a person of color, it can reinforce stereotypes about black people being inherently aggressive, stereotypes that inform the split-second reactions that so often end black lives.
This is part of what makes our culture a systemically racist one. Our mistakes feel innocuous, and we’re taken aback when they’re met with hostility. We don’t see all of the moments of subtly racist behavior we’ve enacted that we haven’t been called out on. We fail to imagine that other would-be white allies are making the same unwitting mistakes every day, all the time. We don’t connect the way of thinking underlying our faux-pas to the way of thinking that results in excessive use of police force.
When I got the harsh reply to my question about the MeetUp event, I didn’t respond right away. I gave myself time to feel ashamed and attacked, and to let those feelings wane. When they did, something occurred to me: Yes, I had made an honest mistake, but it was an honest mistake informed by subtle racism. As a white person, there are very few spaces that I’m not entitled to, so I felt the need to check to be sure that this was one of them. I also didn’t doubt for a second that I had permission to challenge the framing of this space. I did it without thinking. In that light, my honest mistake looks more like entitlement and privilege.
This is what I mean when I say that racism is an honest mistake. Racism is the honest mistakes of countless well-meaning white people that add up to a world where even those who believe in racial justice behave in unwittingly racist ways. Racism is a way of being that is so ubiquitous that aspiring white allies have difficulty seeing it in ourselves, even when it’s pointed out to us.
This is, of course, not the only manifestation of racism. Racism is also KKK rallies and our criminal justice system and mass shootings at black churches and media coverage of those mass shootings and so much more.
If we understand racism as a spectrum that encompasses everything from overt acts of violence to everyday ignorant insensitivity, two things become abundantly clear. Firstly, hostile reactions to our screw-ups are understandable. They’re a response both to what’s happening in the moment, and to the culture that informs that moment. They’re frustration with subtle racism exhibited by people who say they’re committed to ending racism, and who should therefore know better.
More importantly, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. Our feelings of shame and anger are very real, but they are also not the movement’s problem. The problem is systemic racism and oppression. As white allies, to give up on supporting the movement for racial justice the moment we’re called out is just plain selfish. Instead, we have to find a way to process those feelings without wasting precious time and resources on them.
In the MeetUp group later, I apologized. What followed was more capital letters, and an earnest request for me not to write back. Still, I am not discouraged. In the months since I haven’t stopped trying to learn what I did wrong, and how to be better. I try to listen deeply when I’m called out, and to offer actual apologies. More and more I also work to practice gratitude for these moments. After all, I’m invested in doing everything that I can to fight racial injustice, and the more often I’m shown how I contribute to it, the more I can change my behavior to better serve that goal. I also try not to rely on folks calling me out to be my only source of education, because that’s not really practical or fair, and I continue to look to others in the movement for guidance on how to be better.
This practice isn’t easy, and I rarely feel like I am on solid footing. In fact, I am regularly uncomfortable. But this work is no less important because it is hard, and our collective commitment to seeing it through is crucial. If we are truly committed to racial justice, the only response when others are angered by our failure to fully live up to that commitment, is to take a deep breath, calm ourselves down, offer a real apology, and return to the work at hand. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Photo taken by the author at the December 2014 Millions March in New York City.