I have come to the realization (again) that I am racist. For some reason, I feel disappointed every time I have this realization. Maybe I gave myself too much credit, thinking that once I got it the first time I was just gonna get over it? Or maybe I thought it was an easier problem to root out than it’s turned out to be. A friend recently tried to console me that these realizations of my “cognitive biases” are a step in the right direction, which of course they are, but I still don’t feel very positive.
When I came across this open letter, I felt grateful to the author, but I also felt nervous reading it, as a “white” person. Could I ever read a letter like this, intended for a black man, with sincerity? Am I subconsciously, permanently tainted with racial prejudice? Then I got to part where Dyson, the author, says, “in America, we are taught to fear black men.” And whether or not I can read a letter like that with sincerity stopped mattering right then, because she had just spoken the truth, and the truth speaks not only to the subconscious self, but to all Selves. Yeah, I thought, we are. Who teaches us that? I instantly recognized that as true, but could not pinpoint particular moments in my life when I felt like I was being taught to fear black men. I guess this has just been a part of my general societal education, and is deeply rooted in me, whether I like it or not.
It’s really not easy to recognize one’s hand in oppression (of any kind). It’s painful. It’s humiliating. It’s depressing. Whether it’s small-time oppression or full-scale oppression, most people seem interested in justifying their behavior and, really, avoiding guilt.
I know that my friend knows what they’re talking about, concerning cognitive biases; I have seen them realize, acknowledge and begin to work through their own. It takes a huge amount of humility and honesty to even begin that process. I also understand why oppressed people resent their oppressors even after they have begun this process– but it can’t stay that way forever, if things are going to change for the better. Begrudge them, punish them, but eventually, work with them. Recognize them for the ally they’ve become.
I felt guilty reading that letter, like I didn’t deserve to. I’m still trying to work out precisely what that means. My friend also said that acknowledging one’s participation in oppression is only the first step…”the end of it is what you do after you know that about yourself.”