Racism is white people’s demon to kill.
My friend Melissa asked me the other day, when the exact moment was, when, as a white woman, I decided to stand up and speak out against racism.
I had to think about that for a minute because of course I thought, I’ve always known racism was wrong. I wasn’t taught racism. I wasn’t raised racist. I was taught the opposite. I’ve always stood up. My cousins were black after all and I loved them, right?
I realize now (I’m 50) that I grew up surrounded by racism. In my all-white community, hearing racist epithets, watching some of my extended family treat my aunt and her children, who were black, very badly. Of course, my family didn’t do that to her, to her children. We were the good relatives, right? So I didn’t need to stand up …
Even as a young adult, I didn’t call out my racist relatives or my racist friends. I didn’t, not really. I laughed uncomfortably most times and might utter a soft admonishment for racist comments, but still, I didn’t stand up!
When I moved my own young family from Butternut, Wisconsin, to the big city of Waukesha, my 5-year-old asked me if a black man in our new neighborhood was Michael Jordan and I remember my horror when I heard my son refer to his new friend from school, Cedric, as “that brown kid.” Of course, I used these instances to teach my son why this was wrong, but mostly I was trying to correct my own failure as his mother for not addressing this sooner. Still, I wasn’t standing up.
We didn’t stay in the big city long and quietly retreated back to the safety of our small insulated community of Butternut, where I didn’t have to stand.
As an educator, I was passionate about incorporating diversity education and tolerance into every part of my teaching, I committed to making it a primary focus of my work. I was doing my part. I was finally standing up this way, or at least I thought I was, but I wasn’t standing up. Not at all.
Now, at 50, with my children grown, it’s much easier to stand up. I have the time, resources, I’ve learned a little more about how to be an ally. Good for me, right?
Please! I have failed. I deserve no pat on the back, I failed to stand with people of color in my life, in my community, in this country. As a white person, I needed to use my whiteness to actively stand up and call out other white people for their racism every single time I saw it and to hold other white people accountable to do the same.
Racism is white people’s original sin. I have done nothing in my life to make it better. By not calling out racists, I made it worse, I allowed systemic racism to continue to oppress, because it didn’t effect me directly and when racism made me angry I spoke up only when I managed to make time to do so. I am no better than someone who is a blatant racist or who thinks racism isn’t a problem anymore. People of color shouldn’t have to fight for the basic right to be treated as equal citizens of this country. That’s on us, on white people! So stop telling yourself you’re not a racist, stop telling yourself you’re a good ally. You’re not. You won’t be until you use your whiteness and the power that comes with it to stand up and demand change in our laws that make it possible for people of color to have the same opportunities we as white people have.
To answer Melissa’s question, I never stood up to racism, not really, and chances are you haven’t either.
Christine Salm of Wausau
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