What would it mean?

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?

8 thoughts on “What would it mean?

  1. Commodification, profiting from racism, selling black bodies – I don’t see a huge distinction between her doll business and her adoption business.

  2. Great article. However, an obstacle that goes before even admitting you were wrong when it comes to racism is confusing racism with individual acts of meanness. Without a clear definition of racism, it won’t be easy to get racists to admit to racism.

    When racism is confused with individual acts of meanness, it’s trivialized and reduced to mere bullying. Yes, that’s a bad thing, but not really racism per se.

    This confusion then leads quickly and inexorably to the idea that “everyone experiences racism equally,” which means anything else anti-racists talk about (privilege, dominance, oppression, affirmative action, etc.) will make absolutely no sense. If everyone experiences racism equally, then denial of racism, race fetishism, cultural appropriation, cultural assimilation, colonialism/imperialism, etc. make no sense and must be thrown out as figments of some oversensitive party poopers’ imaginations.

    Confusing racism with individual acts of meanness means a denial of all social and historical context. “Racist” actions, then, have no causes outside of good intentions and no effects outside of possibly “offending” a few random people somehow. Therefore, all we need to do is try our very, very bestest not to offend people, and we’ll all get along and ride ponies into the sunset.

  3. “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.”

    I totally agree.

    “However, an obstacle that goes before even admitting you were wrong when it comes to racism is confusing racism with individual acts of meanness.”

    That’s a really good point.

  4. This is a really good post, really clear. And ditto Elton on the “individual acts of meanness” v. systemic racism. For white people, admitting that they benefit from a system of racism really trips folks up. We all want to see ourselves as “one of the good ones”, as you said. Like you pointed out in just this particular example, what does Merrily personally have to give up, if she were to accept that these dolls are racist? What does she have to admit about herself, what does she have to change? She gets to choose whether to face it or not, whether to acknowledge or not. Whether to change or not.

    I think that for a white person to really accept the truth of systemic racism — how it affects POCs, AND the flip side of how we benefit from that system — it basically means everything has to change for us. Seriously, we have to change everything. I know that probably sounds melodramatic to some folks, but I do think that’s the truth.

    Excellent piece. Your site should be required reading.

  5. I find I have another sort of denial where this woman and her “hobby” are concerned.

    I can’t freaking believe someone could be this stupid? Not sure what word to use there.

    So far as her association with adoptive parents is concerned, I’m ashamed to say that I’m not shocked that she hasn’t been avoided because of this to the point where there would be no point in calling herself the director of anything. My exposure to my fellow adoptive parents hasn’t gone very well.

  6. Wow, durgamom, your comment cuts right to the heart of it.

    She has obviously willfully chosen to ignore anything that would challenge what she believes/wants to be true. And I think one of the biggest ways systemic racism functions is that everybody colludes with that desire.

    Anyway, prospective adoptive parents ought to google the names of their adoption agency directors. Just to get a look at what privilege affords.

  7. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. Thanks for this smart analysis. Thank you, too, for the link to Ferris State. I was ignorant of most of the history associated with g_w_gs.

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