Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The machinery of racism...sitting still

One of the reasons that dealing with racism these days is so difficult is that we're still stuck in identifying it based on the kinds of things that happened during the Jim Crow era. If we're not calling someone the "n" word or refusing to serve black people, then we're not racist, right?

Not so much.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has identified what he sees as the "machinery of racism." To understand, you'll need a bit of the back story. A few days ago Coates identified Melissa Harris-Perry as "America's foremost public intellectual." Dylan Byers suggested that in doing so, Coates wasn't just wrong, but that he undermined his own intellectual credibility. When asked to name his own alternatives, Byers came up with five white guys. I'll let Coates take it from there.
Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.

Let me give you a very simple example from my own experience that might help illuminate that. Years ago I would hear black people talk about police harassment and the perils of 'driving while black/brown." As long as I "sat still" and didn't venture out of my own comfort zone, I considered that whole proposition to be meaningless because it never happened to me or anyone I knew. My dismissal was an insult to the basic intelligence of almost every black and brown person in this country. But if anyone had called that racist, I likely would have assumed they were the one's playing the "race card" and gotten defensive.

Then I made friends with someone who was harassed almost daily simply for being brown. All of the sudden I started paying attention and was ashamed at how blind I'd allowed myself to be.

Since then, every time my eyes have opened further to my own racism, its been because I decided to stop standing still. Either I put myself into situations where I came in contact with the lived experience of people of color or I simply opened my ears to hear what they had to say.

The very nature of white privilege is that we can sit still in our own comfort zone and not notice. But given the demographic changes happening in this country, those days are numbered. Having a black POTUS and family living in the White House makes it all increasingly impossible to ignore.

At some point, we're all going to have to wrestle with the choice of either being socially immobilized as we continue to sit still - or take the risk of admitting our ignorance and ask some questions. Every time we chose the latter, we begin to unwind the machinery of racism.


  1. Hi SP, What a really great post! Ta-Nehisi Coates did us all a big service most of all Melissa! It has been hard watching the gristmill grinding up Melissa. Its always hard when its an AA without the "REAL" ability to defend themselves.

  2. I made a comment during the trial of Zimmerman that the "white privilege" did *not* mean that you didn't get racially targeted in the street and presumed to be a thug just because you were out walking alone at night in a hoodie. No, the privilege of being white in this society is that you don't even have to *think* about what it would be like to have to worry about being racially targeted by some wanna-be cop with a stick up his ass.

    I have a son who was Trayvon's age at the time he was shot and all I could think is how awful it would be if I had to give him "the talk" before he reached that age. Even if racial equality has improved in this culture, the very fact that black families with black sons know that those sons could be shot at any time by a whack-a-loon and then get off by pleading self-defense is evidence enough that we haven't grown up enough.

  3. SP, its a difficult conversation to have, but it's one that must occur if the 'machinery of racism' can get stopped.


  4. Every white person is racist to some degree. Watch television shows and movies for black women sometimes. Except for the occasional extra, it is profound how black women are erased in our media culture. The media is continually transmitting racist messages and impressions that all can be individually explained away, like the "lone mad man" who snaps after years of immersing himself in paranoid propaganda. The machine can't bee t blame somehow. Byers's and his ilk capitalize on this. Melissa Harris-Perry is being attacked as a black woman. She's the only black woman in the media that stars. We can't have that, like we can't have a black man in the White House, because they are in a positions that merits trust and they can't have any from a large share of the American public.

    All we have to do is not defend black people that the racists sic the dogs on and we have failed them all. I think the best thing we could do is to not get into uh-huh/nuh-huh arguments with casual racists but to learn what we can about whatever black of minority person is on their recreational chopping block today. There are a lot of people working real hard to have MHP fired and some of them are talking heads in cable news. This is outrageous--- there rallying cry is, in the end, "get the rope".

    Sitting on our privilege is most often unconscious and habitual. We need to be shaken up. There are black voices on the internet that we should actively listen to without asking them to teach us and not crowding their spaces with comments. We need to spend time taking the message to whites, especially ourselves, like you're doing here. There's a whole lot of homework to do, it's enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives, because we've all been taught to be racist. It's as if white racists will never forgive blacks for what we've done to them.

  5. thanks for your post.
    for years white privilege was just as natural DNA. to some people, before the election of America's first black president, this privilege was like a pre-existing condition, something that you have by no fault of your own, something you will never be cured of. after the election, and because of the obviously blatant racial pre-occupation of some members of our society, this condition has begun to ache deep within, and the only meds that will help is admitting the fact that racism exists. on a very big scale.
    there are a lot of people that dont have a clue that the words coming out of their mouths are racial, and some just dont care. sometimes its hard for the rest of us tell the difference. mostly its ignorance, not everyone can take that extra second to think before speak. "i have a black friend" sounds kinda racial to a grown person, but not to a teenager beginning to spread wings."i know a black person," well that speaks volumes to the fact some grown people need to spread their wings.
    i'm not saying that we should spend our days looking for a black person to interact with, but how about just reading books by black authors, or watching movies with mainly black casts, or...asking questions about what makes us more alike that different.
    and to every word i have written, the path goes both ways, and not to just black people, but to anyone who's not... you. be a conversation starter.