I know I’m a racist but …

By Robert Jensen

Published in New Impact magazine · January, 2002

[Originally published in New Impact magazine (England), January/February 2002, pp. 28-30.]

White folks are often parodied — and rightly so — for beginning sentences about race with the disclaimer, “I’m not a racist, but …” What follows is more often than not an overtly racist statement.

But just as often in white liberal circles these days, one hears the phrase flipped.

“I know I am a racist, but I am trying to overcome my racism,” is a common confession from well-meaning white folks, even those who are politically active in anti-racist campaigns.

By that they mean that while they are committed to anti-racist politics and realize that they will always have to struggle to stay clear of the unconscious racism that is so easy to fall into in a white-supremacist culture. At least, that’s what I meant when I used to say it.

But I don’ say it anymore, in part because in a discussion with a white political colleague I saw clearly how that declaration can allow people to avoid accountability, which led me to question whether such seemingly well-intentioned humility is politically useful. In another situation, I saw how the statement, even when made in good faith, is both imprecise and an unproductive rhetorical strategy.

The accountability issue first: This white colleague — call him Joe — and I were having a tense meeting about some problems in a political group. I was concerned about what I saw as his disrespectful treatment of two other political allies, one man and one woman, and both of them non-white and younger than Joe.

I am a white professional of roughly Joe’s age, and I suggested to Joe that while I was not branding him a racist, I thought he should think about whether he would have dared to treat me the way he treated them. The reason he wouldn’t, I suggested, might have something to do with their age, or their race and ethnicity.

Joe blew up. “I know I’m a racist,” he began, and the usual speech followed about growing up in a racist culture and working to overcome the racist training.

I could have made the same speech. In fact, when I talk about racial justice I often mention that I grew up in an overtly racist household in a white-supremacist society, and I try to talk honestly about what that has meant in my life. Such discussions are not only reasonable but necessary if we are to make progress, both individually and culturally.

But there was something in the way Joe used the “confession” of his own racism to avoid accountability that bothered me. Joe could have said, “Yes, I am struggling with living as a white person in a white-supremacist society, Now, tell me more about why you think I acted inappropriately?”

Instead, his declaration derailed a serious conversation about the dispute at hand. By acknowledging racism in the abstract, he cut off the possibility of a meaningful discussion about a very concrete incident potentially tainted with subtle racism. I was left angry, both in personal terms (his mistreatment of the two allies was not going to be remedied if not acknowledged) and political terms (it’s difficult to imagine progress when white allies are stuck in such reactions).

My second concern is about language and rhetoric. In another incident at a public event
about affirmative action, I saw a white anti-racist activist — call him Jim — make a similar declaration during the discussion period after an anti-affirmative action speaker. His comments were intended to make sure he didn’t appear arrogant or accusatory; he didn’t want to exempt himself from the critique of white America. Unlike Joe, Jim’s motives seemed sound to me.

The problem, however, was that many folks thought he sounded silly. From my vantage point in the auditorium, it appeared that at least half of the audience members, white and non-white alike, rolled their eyes at his comment. They had heard it before, and they didn’t find it meaningful. As a rhetorical strategy to an audience that was decidedly mixed in its support of affirmative action, Jim’s declaration was ineffective; it rang hollow with them.

I think there is an important lesson in that audience reaction, and it has to do with the imprecision of the “I know I’m a racist” line. The use of the term “racist” in this fashion drains the term of any meaning. If that same word can be used to describe a KKK member and a well-intentioned white anti-racist activist — who in a very real sense clearly is not a racist — then the term effectively has no meaning. If every white person is a racist, then no one is really a racist. We have to be able to distinguish between the way in which all white people benefit from living in a white-supremacist society (what we could call white privilege) and the different forms that racism — personal and institutional — takes.

Unlike Joe, who was hiding his weaknesses, I think Jim was hiding his strengths. Just as Joe needs to be accountable for his actions, so does Jim. Instead of saying “I am still a racist,” it would be far more honest, and more courageous, for him to say, “I have worked hard to overcome much of the racism that this culture handed me. I think I have done a pretty good job. But precisely because of that fact, I have even more of a stake in having other folks — non-white and white — keep an eye on my behavior and hold me accountable.”

I have been trying to do that kind of work myself, and I think I have made strides. I also am well aware of some of my failures, and I try to be open to critique. But it is precisely because I have done that work that I think I can sometimes see my failures. It is to my own failures I want to turn, to avoid a problem that is common to everyone — but especially to white folks talking about racism — of seeing the flaws in others much quicker than we see them in ourselves.

One of the traps I fall into far too easily is to “see” race where race is not and should not be an issue or an explanatory framework. Non-white friends and colleagues have told me often that one of the burdens they carry is that in the dominant culture they can never simply be a person — they always are a black person, or a Hispanic person, or an Asian person. This takes many forms. Sometimes people will turn to an African-American person and say, “How does the black community feel about this issue?” as if the person (1) evaluates the issue only through the lens of race, and (2) is authorized to speak for an entire community.

This takes another common form, with which I constantly struggle: When a non-white person makes a mistake, the mistake often is attributed to race. For example, when I have a white student who does poorly on an assignment or fails an exam, I think to myself, “That student did a crappy job.” I see a student, not a white student.

If a black student messes up, I have to struggle not to let myself think, “That black student messed up.” If I am thinking about it, I am careful not to make that mistake. But I don’t always think about it. The lifelong training I have received to see black people as intellectually inferior, and the constant focusing of society’s attention on the bogus markers of that alleged inferiority (such as standardized test scores), mean that if I am to short-circuit that racist reaction, I have to keep constantly on guard. But I am human; sometimes I let my guard down, I fail.

But to admit that is not the same thing as saying I am racist. Instead, I would say I am and anti-racist person who often succeeds at resisting the embedded racism of the culture, when he can see it. Even though I sometimes fail, I am different than a colleague who really believes that black people are intellectually inferior — and we all know there are professors who hold such views, even if it is no longer polite to speak them in public.

That difference makes a difference in the world, especially if it leads us white people not just to applaud themselves for personal strides but to work in solidarity with others on the larger and more difficult questions of institutionalized racism.

My point is that white people who struggle against racism need not deny what they have achieved. In fact, it is by acknowledging those achievements that we open up the space to go further, both individually and collectively, in resisting the society’s racism and one day eliminating it. It doesn’t mean we are off the hook; it means we are on the hook even more publicly.

The balance in all this is tricky. The tendency among progressive whites toward self-congratulation, denial, and avoidance is well-known, especially to non-white people. For example, a few years ago my department’s faculty met to discuss problems around race and ethnicity. While everyone was willing to acknowledge that we live in a racist society and that we all carried some of that racism in us, there seemed to be lots of explanations for why other people might have problems but precious little honest introspection.

At that point in the semester, I had just had an African-American student who had been having problems in class, and too late I had come to realize that my failure to reach out to help her had something to do with my unexamined assumptions about race. So, I posed the question to the group: Does anyone else struggle with this problem of seeing race as an explanation for failure, but only with non-white students?

The question hung in the air for a moment, dropped on the table, and died a silent death. After some uncomfortable shifting in chairs, the group moved on.

I tell that story not to appear holier than thou; my failing was real, and it is a problem I struggle with years later, though I think I have made real progress. I raised it in the meeting not to make people uncomfortable but because I was looking for help in dealing with the question.

At first, I was confused about why my question had been such a conversation-stopper. I thought that by turning the focus on myself and not indicting anyone else, I could help people feel comfortable with talking about a difficult subject. But later I realized that precisely by making an abstract topic real, by admitting that I was struggling with a very serious manifestation of the culture’s racism, I had threatened my colleagues who did not want to see themselves that way. To give voice to the problem — even if I only talked about myself — was to make it too real, too threatening.

It is long past the time that we white folks have to able to see ourselves honestly and be willing to be accountable, not just about our failures but our successes. Both kinds of admissions require courage tempered with humility. Walking that wire is difficult; the balance is tricky. The only thing more dangerous is not to step onto the wire at all.