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The Accidental Racist

As the white wife of a man of color, and as the mother of two biracial children, I have developed a keen awareness of racism. I can smell racism a mile away. Maybe farther. Unfortunately it is a lot closer than that. It’s the policeman stopping my husband on the street to verify ownership of his bicycle. It’s the stranger in the grocery store raving about my son’s hair. It’s the acquaintance describing my husband as "casing the joint" when he is being given a tour of a friend’s home. It’s the friend asking: "Is your hair real? Can I touch it?" It’s my doctor, my accountant, my mechanic. It’s my mother, my father, my sisters. It’s me. We are not necessarily bad people, we just don’t know any better. Right?

My husband and I frequently endure covertly racist comments and questions from our neighbors, acquaintances, friends, and most disturbingly, from my own family. These experiences leave me dismayed, angry, sad and wanting to fight back. My husband finds my naiveté annoying: racism has been an inescapable part of his life since before he was even born. I, on the other hand, have been an unwitting beneficiary of racism, via the endless privileges afforded me, simply because my skin is white. If you do not believe in white privilege, I wonder then, would you trade places with a person of color? Honestly? The oppression of people of color is deeply-embedded in our society. It is much more widespread than the Ku Klux Klan and similar white supremacist groups. Our society has institutionalized systems of sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism etc. These systems work in tandem serving one primary purpose: to sustain the White Male Patriarchy. If you do not believe this fact then you are going to hate what I have to say.

Sometimes racism is overt: clear and obvious to all. Sometimes it is covert and much harder to identify. Sometimes racism is intentional, sometimes, I believe, it is not. The impact of racism remains the same regardless of the intention. Today I am going to address what I like to think of as "accidental racism" by possibly well-meaning white people. I want to believe that most people are good, that they believe in equality and justice. However, because the oppression of people of color is so deeply-embedded in our culture, it is impossible to remain uninfected. Growing up white in this country leaves us, white people, susceptible to making comments, questions, assumptions, and jokes that inadvertently perpetuate racism and alienate people of color. These missteps can be so subtle as to be imperceptible to white people but people of color have no trouble identifying them. Today I am no longer oblivious to racism and am obligated to counter racism every chance I get. I believe we all do. We are not blameless and should be ashamed. My hope is that you, like I, will appreciate knowing what these accidents might look like that are hurting our friends, our children, our neighbors and that inevitably prevent us all from achieving our full human potential.

Am I racist for even writing this article? For even wanting to protect my family? Maybe. My husband can take care of himself. He doesn’t want, let alone need, the infamous "Great White Hope" coming to his rescue. But I am tired of these stories. Tired of cringing in silence when I fear someone is about to say something racist. I am tired of being right. I don’t want to run to my son’s elementary school in a panic when I find out the theme is "Weird Hair Day". I don’t want white kids to call my children racial slurs. I don’t want to find "Little Brown Koko," a racist fabrication from 1940, at the school book sale. Honestly, in 2012, the presence of that book at my child’s school is inexcusable.

So for those of you who care, here are some tips on how NOT to be an accidental racist. Please try not to feel defensive, intimidated or embarrassed. If you are guilty of some of them, it is not entirely your fault. My list comes from first-hand experience as witness and/or perpetrator.

1. Do not say: "I’m not racist, my best friend is black." Particularly when it’s just not true.

2. Do not start a sentence with: "Not to be racist but…"

3. Do not call a person of color racist. The misuse of this word only reveals your ignorance. The definition of racism is a system of oppression based on skin color, inflicted on one group, by the one in power, i.e. white people.

4. Do not tell completely irrelevant stories about your ex-boyfriend back in high school who was black, or Mexican or Chinese.

5. Do not insist proudly that you "don’t see color, I’m colorblind." It is not inherently racist to see people as they are.

6. Do not mention a person’s ethnicity unless it is germane.

7. Do not comment on hair or skin color. Do not ask, or surreptitiously try, to touch a black person’s hair, especially if you barely know him/her.

8. Do not ask a black person if his/her hair is real.

9. Do not assume racist stereotypes are true. Any of them.

10. Do not say someone is "acting white" because he/she does not fulfill stereotypes for you.

11. Do not use the word "dark" to describe anything but colors or the time of day.

12. Do not use disparaging slang such as "ghetto."

13. Do not "accidentally" tell racist jokes. Do not laugh at racist jokes.

14. Do not ask a person of color to explain racism to you. Get a book. Take a class. Go to an anti-racism workshop.

15. Do not expect a person of color to "speak" for his/her race.

16. If anyone comments that what you just said sounds racist, ask them to tell you more. Do not get defensive. It’s not entirely your fault.

17. If anyone says something you believe may be racist, say so.

18. Recognize and accept that doors everywhere open for you solely because your skin is white, or more specifically: because white people and institutions are racist. Open the door for people whose skin is not white. Just do it. Open as many doors as possible. I promise it won’t hurt.

19. Entitlement and privilege go hand in hand with being born with white skin in this country. Imagine a different experience. Read about it. Try to make it better for the next generation.

20. And remember, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third, is to be kind."– Henry James

It’s really quite simple: whatever you think you know about any group of people of color, just toss it out the window. I guarantee you, if you’re white and you grew up here, it’s wrong and it’s undoubtedly racist. Open your mind. Notice your thoughts. Question them but please, unless you happen to be in an all-white consciousness-raising group, keep them to yourself!


Hello Stephanie,

As the white single mother of a bi-racial daugther, I take a lot of offense to what you are writing. My daughter is now 27 and the most severe racism that we have felt has come from the black community. I'm sorry, but you CAN call it racism and it hurts just the same. Actually, I think the hurt is more so because you want the acceptance so badly. But to contanstly be judged on not being 'black enough' and put down over and over...I don't think this issue should be denied or whitewashed any longer.

I too became aware of white racism while rasing my daughter. My approach was a little different. I was determined that I was not going to let racism effect my life or change anything in it. If you look for evil, you will always find it. Similarly, if you ignore the idiots, you don't 'see' them either. I never let racism change the way I felt about myself, my child or my life. It didn't even exist for me. I don't spend not one minute of my time with racist or thinking about racists. There were always enough people who were not so narrow-minded to have as friends and colleagues.

I object to your whole stance. I have seen so much improvement in regards to white racism against people of color. With each generation, racism is less acceptable. Its improved far more than I thought was possible in my lifetime. This new generation that are in their twenties now - racism is seen as ignorance and very uncool. There has been progress and this needs to be acknowledged and supported.

And this whole 'white privledge' thing is just crap. If you are poor and uneducated white person, you face the very same obstacles as for poor, uneducated black people. It's class warfare more than anything. Don't kid yourself. I lifted myself out of poverty, I have been homeless with my family. Let me tell you....there is no white privledge. There are the same amount of drugs and crime in low-income white neighborhoods as there are in low-income black neighborhoods. Cops will harrass you the same. Believe me. If you live in a poor neighborhood it doesn't matter what your skin color is - the police will harrass you.

There is no 'white privledge'. Privledge comes from economic class and that is not closed to anyone. I often though during my worst of times...what a waste that we are not fighting class warfare together! Why retain these race barriers? For what purpose?

And as for your suggestions....I have to reject those as racist in nature. I'm sorry, but it's time we start moving into true racial equality. I believe that no one is less than or greater than me. I don't care what skin color you have. I will treat you as I would treat my own brother. I refuse to believe that being black is something that needs to be compensated for. Believing that means you do believe that the race is inferior - which I refuse.

We have to end these racial sensitivities and not cater to them. I was never offended when people asked about my daughter's hair. That's just curiosity. I always answered those questions without taking offense. Why would I take offense? Do I believe there is something inherently wrong with black hair? No. So, why take offense at curiosity.

By putting up those barriers 'you can't say this to that person' it just keeps people separated. Why do this? We are all people. We are all a part of the human race.

To be honest, it sounds like you have an internal issue with your own choices. It really does sound like you believe that the black race is inferior, needing compensation, special treatment, etc. We need to rise above this kind of thinking. I remember once my daughter told me that her boyfriend's father (who was black) said to her 'you have two strikes against you. You are female and you are black'. She responded by saying she had NO strikes against her. She had ambition of being a lawyer. This has changed, she is now going into dental school to be a dentist. The point being - I did not raise her to believe that there were obstacles she could not overcome. I did not raise her to believe she was limited in opportunity. And there has been no barriers for her. She has gone far in her education and career.

We have to get past this victim mentality. Its the mentality that holds people back. Not other people, because you can choose not to let them effect your life. It has to come from within. NO race is inferior or superior to the other. Lets just stop with all these only divides us.

If you believe your children are handicapped by their race, they will believe this as well. Personally, I don't buy into. Why let a tiny minority of ignorant people determine how you feel about yourself? This has to stop!!!

The best approach I have seen to oppression came from the czechoslovakian velvet revolution. Their approach to topple their communist government was simple and very effective. The idea was...don't start a riot, don't break one window, don't break one door...just do what you would want to do if they weren't there. Live the kind of life you want without giving them a consideration or thought. Treat them as invisible and they will lose their power over you. They can't arrest the whole country.

And that is exactly what they did and it worked beautifully. The communist government collapsed as they could see they had no more control over the country. Like a whole country of Rosa Parks...'I'm just going to sit in this seat thank you'. There was mass defiance. But not in a way that was damaging to them. There was no violence. Just people doing the things they would do if the government was not in charge.

This is how we need to deal with racism.