Recognizing My Own Racism

By: Rhiannon Dickerson, Discourse Coordinator and Lecturer in Communication Studies

I recently helped facilitate a training on white fragility. We asked white folks to share a story of a time when they were fragile in discussions of race, racism, or whiteness. We struggled to share examples. It’s not that we aren’t fragile, but rather, our reluctance to share is an example of our fragility. I shared a story of a time when I didn’t intervene when a colleague said something racially problematic. It was an easy story to tell. It was someone else’s racism and my reluctance to challenge white solidarity was peripheral.

I have another story to tell, one that better reflects the depth of my own fragility, and one that I’ve avoided telling for years.

A few years back, a family friend, an aunt really, unfriended our entire family. She divorced us because we weren’t doing enough to deconstruct our whiteness and the ways in which we manifested racism in our lives. Janine, we’ll call her, is a Jewish woman whose partner is African American and whose daughter is biracial. When she unfriended us, we’d been in each other’s lives for twenty years. Most of us don’t know anyone like Janine; she’s exceptionally anti-racist and holds people accountable even when that means sacrificing relationships she values.

I’ll admit that at first, I didn’t understand it. I recoiled at the accusation. I called my sisters. I fumed defensively over the phone. I’d been taught to think of racists as boys who wore Confederate flag belt buckles, or the people who hurled racial slurs at passersby. I’d been taught to see racism as overtly bigoted and intentional acts of cruelty, or systemic patterns of discrimination. I couldn’t be racist. Privileged, certainly. Racist? Absolutely not.  After all, I taught about racism and white privilege every year. I infused my curriculum with controversial discussions that centered institutionalized racism. I confronted racists and advocated on behalf of people of color. I was #woke.

When she divorced us, she did so over a blog post. It was public. And while she didn’t name names, and I’m sure few people read it, I was hurt and ashamed. It took me months to understand that she divorced us in a way that would allow her the uninterrupted space to explain herself, it afforded her safety and distance. She didn’t have to listen to us defend ourselves, argue with her, or whitesplain anything.

I didn’t see myself as racist and the white people I know don’t consider me racist (or not unfriendably so). I suppose I thought that even though I was inured in a white supremacist society, even though I was socialized in antiblackness, I was somehow immune. Like I could sit in a sea of racism and come out clean. My racism was present on my bookshelf, for example, the pride of my home. I have two degrees in English and my books were predominantly white. My racism was present when I locked my car doors in a black neighborhood and when I didn’t in white neighborhoods. My racism was present when I was overly friendly to people of color.  My racism was present in my pleas of racial innocence.

Whiteness manifests itself in myriad ways, chief among them is inability to see our own racism. If Janine had not ended our friendship, I doubt I’d be able to identify it now. That loss was transformative to my racial literacy and awareness of self.

I intentionally didn’t tell this story during the training. I wanted to save face, to come into the room and control the narrative, to reveal and conceal that which benefitted my visage. I was too fragile to tell the story that needed to be told.

White folks cannot be anti-racist without first confronting our racism, as Janine taught me. The journey to racial literacy is long and fraught, but I’m committed to learning about my racism, naming it, and fighting it. I’m developing the courage to be honest about who I am so that I can become who I want to be.