A while back, a white friend said that he felt one of the biggest reasons white people could not confront their own racism was because it was difficult for them to admit they had been wrong. He explained that it wasn’t necessarily about being racist, but about admitting error, which many white people are loathe to do.
I have been thinking about that ever since. And while I do think that people in general (not just white people) are often reluctant to admit they were wrong, I think that racism exacerbates that reluctance for a number of reasons.
In general, I believe that most of us like to think of ourselves as good people. We all know (or most of us, anyway) that racism is bad. Therefore we do not want to be racist, because that would mean we are bad people. It’s obviously an oversimplification, but I do believe that’s the basic level where most people function.
Unfortunately, this deep-seated desire to be good means that we deny our own racism rather than confronting it.
Additionally, if we are aware of the pain that racism causes, we don’t want to have anything to do with that. Nuh uh. Not me. So rather than acknowledge that we have hurt other people, we deny instead that we have done anything at all.
I think about the white director of Adoption Advocates International. What level of denial must she have achieved in order to defend her love of golliw*gs? She has refused to acknowledge their racist nature for the past ten years, at the very least. But what would it mean if she were to open her eyes?
It would mean that she would have to abandon a collection that undoubtedly brought (brings?) her great pleasure. Like many other people, she has found racism enjoyable. This is often the case for people who have beloved books, movies, favorite uncles who tell racist jokes, knicknacks and lawn jockeys, etc. They often cannot acknowledge the racist nature of their beloved whatever without lessening their own enjoyment. Therefore there is just one choice. Deny the racism.
It would mean that she would have to hear the voices of people who are hurt by racist slurs. People for whom “golliw*g” cuts like a knife. People who know that being reduced to a “w*g” is being denied your very personhood. People who know that racist words and images contribute and reinforce systemic racism in our society.
Like many other white people, she would prefer not to know about this. She denies that cute little “gollies” have anything to do with this racism. She denies that their very image is racist. It couldn’t be racist, since she proudly designed and distributed new items bearing that racist image. Designed by Merrily!
Oh dear. Now it gets personal.
It would mean that as an adoption agency director who places black children, you personally endorsed racism to white adoptive parents. You have allowed them to excuse your racism as well as their own. Because you know that they will often defend you based on your position and your “good works.” You’ve done so much good for those poor little orphans! That’s what white people have been trained to do. They excuse, minimize and deny the racism of other white people. It’s part of being in the white club.
But you have stunted the desperately-needed learning curve that white parents require when they adopt children of color–because you yourself have not ever been able to ride that curve. And it’s a wicked ride. So instead, deny, deny, deny.
And what do you do when you have beloved children who are black? How do you consider that the hurt you have caused others through your racism might have harmed people whom you love dearly? Maybe you see them as “just people.” But other people see them as “w*gs.” That blame falls on you.
Maybe the problem is that it is just all too intense and enormous and all-encompassing. Kind of like the problem of racism in general. You’d have to get rid of those dolls. Maybe they’re worth a lot of money. You’d have to admit that designing and mass-producing new items meant that you were perpetuating and profiting off racism. You’d have to stop hanging out with all those other gollie collectors and going to the golliefests and having a good old time with all those other racist gollie lovers. You’d have to acknowledge your contribution to a racism system. You’d have to look your children in the eye and know that you had harmed them as well as the people who look like them.
And maybe this is just too big a price to pay.
It’s just too easy for me to pick on this person, since she is an obvious, egregious example of denial in action. But the reality is that we all face choices on a daily basis. If I say this, will he still be my friend? How can I bring this up when I know people will not like it? If we are having a good time, should I spoil it by pointing out racism? Will this just bring me more grief? How do I undo a lifetime of thought, of subconscious message, of internalized racism? Is there an incentive for me to cling to my racism?
And what is it worth? What is the price I pay? And what is the cost if I don’t?