The Other Columbus: Anti-racism work is supposed to be hard
More than any of my books, poems, essays and journalism, this paragraph is the most widely read thing I’ve ever written:
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
The quote has recently gone viral, but it’s not the first time. It happened when I first wrote it in 2014, tucked into an essay after Ani DiFranco planned to use a former slave plantation as an event site. It popped up later that same year during protests in Ferguson and after Eric Garner’s murder. It’s appeared in a lot of online articles. Someone made an ASL video of it. It’s been shared by one of the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’ve been interviewed about it. I’ve seen it translated in four languages. That paragraph has gotten around.
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I’m not here to humble-brag this quote. I’m here to point out that the reason why it keeps coming back every couple of years is because we, as a society, aren’t fixing the problem. In fact, it’s getting worse. And that’s happening because people aren’t digging into the work correctly. They aren’t leaping the first and most important hurdle to dealing with racism in this country: comfort.
America’s premiere value isn’t liberty or justice or freedom. If those were true, you wouldn’t have protests now. Black people would complain about the same things that white people complain about: having to wait in line at Starbucks and their favorite TV shows being canceled. All of our comedians would be making jokes about airports. We might even stop making pumpkin spice jokes.
This quote tries to make something very clear about anti-racism work: It is uncomfortable work. If the work you’re doing to deprogram white supremacy and racism out of your life is comfortable, that’s probably not the work. The work is supposed to make you uneasy, to fill you with dread. It is work that shouldn’t have a hug anywhere near it when you start. It is work that should seem like it has no end because it is internal work that stretches through the whole of your life. There are no easy answers to the real work. Answers vary depending on who’s asking the question. The work isn’t always shovel-ready. You will have to think about the work, and once you start doing that correctly, you will never not be thinking about the work.
And because someone will insist that I show a step despite my pointing out how it is not my work, here is some homework for you, courtesy of Toni Morrison. This is a quote from an interview she did with Charlie Rose:
“What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions. … If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem, andthey should start thinking about whatthey can do about it. Take me out of it.”
That deceptively complex question – What are you without racism? – is one rarely posed to white people, or one they pose to themselves. It is a question that could consume a life in the answering. If this all sounds unbearably hard, then I have conveyed the appropriate degree of effort that must be expended. You’re trying to undo centuries of social programming and systemic privilege – trying to create actual change – so yes, it should be painful. There should be tears. There should be grief and guilt. There should be shouting and bad words and silence. There should be wariness, even at the best of intentions.
I am honored that so many people find merit in my quote. It makes me feel good to know that people are taking something away from it that may change their lives in ways that other things that are better or more profound than this quote have not. I guess there really is a place for every earnest effort in a movement. But there is also a sadness for me in the way this quote continues to make the rounds, in its bumping needle scratch reminder that if you’re not willing to put in the right work now, you’ll be seeing this quote again in another six years.