Racism is an Honest Mistake

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.

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5 thoughts on “Racism is an Honest Mistake

  1. Racism is not an “honest” mistake. It is hypocrisy. We can look inside to find where we have been dishonest. We can try to make amends. It is introspection and action within parameters. It requires some, but not much faith.
    Rooting out our hypocrisy is far more difficult and has no parameters. It requires constant attention to the interaction between our actions and our words. Our words today compared to our words tomorrow. Anything close to perfection is impossible for nearly all. Finding and addressing our hypocricies requires enormous faith that if we keep a harmony between our word, our next word, and our actions, we will not bring upon ourselves pain and suffering. Have you EVER asked a black person in a grocery store if they live in your neighborhood, because it seemed an anomaly? This is not a mistake. It is an example of the hypocrisy we learn, even before we learn about honesty.
    Christ did not talk about honesty. He talked about hypocrisy. Sadly, the victims of today’s hypocrisy do not have the luxury of rooting it out of their souls. It is for us, with food on our tables and a roof over our head, to start, and continue, this painful journey, with the faith that we can eventually make life a little better.
    David L. Hagan

  2. Racism is brutal, dehumanizing oppression that murders a 12-year-old child in the park and exonerates his killer. Racism is poisioning a community with lead-infested water. Racism is generations of historical trauma, dismemberment, rape, orphaned children, scars that won’t heal. I can see how the title would scan in all-white space, but this blog isn’t just for whites, and I wonder if it works to insist that the blog adhere to a different set of rules for your post, especially when dominant white supremacy culture normalizes white as “everybody.” The title might grab some white readers, but I suspect it will hurt poc readers who daily survive racist violence, microagression, threats to their body and children’s bodies. What ethical responsibilities do whites have for how they process, how they engage? How is “honesty”, an assumption of moral goodness and “innocent intent,” part of white privilege? (See Rebecca Parker’s thoughts on this in Soul Work.) These are some of my thoughts.

    1. Liz, thank you for your comments. Our policy has generally been to allow writers to title their own pieces for publication, but you raise excellent points about how this might read to poc readers and others. We will consider whether or not we should be updating our titling and tagging guidelines. — State of Formation team.

    2. Thanks for your thoughts, Liz. You’re absolutely right. Racism is also all of the things that you call attention to in your comment, and all of what I listed in the body of the piece, and more. When we have these conversations, we’re treading on a lot of scarred ground, and absolutely have to do so carefully and with compassion.

      You’re right, too, that SoF isn’t all-white space, and shouldn’t be. Still, I think that it is important for white people to be in conversation about what allyship should look like, and how to navigate its difficulties. Having this conversation in an open forum (rather than only in more intimate circles less prone to diverse perspective and pushback) is, I think, part of our ethical responsibility to process, improve, and engage responsibly. Acknowledging at the outset of the piece that this conversation is the one I am trying to participate in is not an appeal for a suspension of any rules, or about saying that PoC aren’t welcome. What I hoped to articulate is that I’m not asking for PoC to be responsible for instructing white folks on how to practice allyship, that I’m instead inviting white people to think with me on how best to do it… exactly as you and I are doing now. (Again, thanks!)

      The title of the piece is admittedly provocative, meant to call to the fore the difficult emotions that I’m writing about how to address. With those emotions present and as context, my intent was to then unpack them in a way that both acknowledges their validity and their venom, so as to develop a practice for addressing them and moving past them without making them the focus of shared work for racial justice.

      Innocent intent is often wielded as a shield against criticism, a way for white people to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the effects of our actions. I’m by no means advocating that here. Just the opposite, I’m suggesting that we acknowledge innocent intent fully, including the very real fact that it alone is not enough for reconciliation with the harm our actions cause. (Thanks, also, for the recommendation of Soul Work. I’ll add it to my reading list!)

      Would a better title be “Racism is an Honest Mistake (And No Less Harmful for It)”? Something else? Is there a way to accomplish priming potential readers with the feelings I’m talking about without the hurt? Not something you need to answer for me of course, but questions I’ll certainly keep in mind for next time. Thanks again.

  3. Grace, thanks for this extremely vulnerable post. I often find myself in a similar spot, constantly trying to better understand my role in the racism conversation. This post is a great example of what it mostly looks like for me… lots and lots of learning and listening. It’s certainly difficult at times to stay committed, because I am constantly using the wrong language or just not informed enough, but it’s work that’s worth the time and willingness to be open to being wrong.

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