How I Understand the Fight for Racial Justice as a White, Vegan Woman Part 2: Understanding Racism
I am not an authority on race and racism; I am a white woman from Toronto. There are a multitude of other voices with more value than mine on the subject. I don’t write this to take space away from them. What are my motives? I cannot and do not want to escape this issue, and in my quest to know better and do better, I thought I would share some of my learnings. There is so much to unpack and explore that I decided to publish my thoughts in a series.
This is a complex time in culture, but it should be simple; Black lives matter and we need to enact changes to make that a reality. Somehow, navigating through this is not so simple. Why? I think it can be better understood through three basic issues.
- Racism exists both individually and systemically.
- In addressing racism, the label is too often coopted to reinforce racism and white supremacy/fragility.
- Our current cultural puritanism, deemed “Cancel Culture,” further confuses the issue and hinders growth, both culturally and individually. (Discussed in this post.)
I will briefly explore the first two points in this post. I will be publishing a separate post for the exploration of the role of cancel culture in confronting racism. Granted, the topics explored in this post are better explained by someone with lived experience and also aren’t such difficult concepts to grasp. They are, however, necessary considerations to any discussion of our current climate of racism. If you have questions or want a more thorough explanation, there are multiple resources online by BIPOC authors with greater insights than mine.
Racism as Individual and Systemic
There is nothing revolutionary that I can add to the first point. If you are a BIPOC, you know that racism exists systemically and for you personally. If you are white and the first point isn’t obvious to you, pay closer attention to what is going on in the world, in the media, in your BIPOC friends’ lives (but don’t ask them for proof; that’s not their responsibility and it’s not a kindness). If it were only an issue of individual racism, then it might be a clearer route toward racial justice; racists could be treated as a radical fringe group, their opinions dismissed as hateful irrationality, their actions named reprehensible, and the participants held accountable. It is more difficult, however, to abolish racism when it lives in and is reiterated by our culture and institutions; i.e., “Wealth Gap, Employment, Housing Discrimination, Government Surveillance, Incarceration, Drug Arrests, Immigration Arrests, Infant Mortality” (click here for more examples and helpful videos exploring this topic). Individual racism is endlessly validated and motivated by systemic racism. It’s a cycle that is insidious and tenacious.
Consider that the United States is one of the only liberal democracies in the world that protects hate speech under its Constitution. While I absolutely do not claim that the United States is therefore more racist than its democratic counterparts, this is a uniquely poignant example of just how racism is built into the system.
Racism Accountability Coopted to Reinforce White Supremacy
You need only to look at the responses from (white) people called out for their racism for an illustration of this phenomenon. Either we will hear the criticism, examine our behaviour, and apologize (and hopefully do better), or we will deny and deflect. The real problem is the second response (cancel culture will claim that both are problematic, but I will address that elsewhere). “White people culture” rooted in racism and white supremacy cares more about the wound of being labelled racist than it does about racism because it threatens the validity of the supremacy. (It’s the same logic that will diminish gender equality concerns by labelling feminists as feminazis. Any challenge to the status quo is deemed radicalism and dismissed outright—and racism is the status quo.)
You see this kind of response regularly from (especially Right Wing) public figures, if not in your own life. For a current example, look at Donald Trump’s response to a CBS reporter asking about the number of African Americans being killed by police officers: “So are white people. What a terrible question to ask. So are white people. More white people, by the way” (read more from LA Times). He is incorrect, but will be believed by a vast amount of people who doubt racism exists in the same way they doubt they are fallible. That a response of denial and deflection is not a rarity should make clear that even within a conversation of racial injustice, whiteness remains privileged. The label, rather than the discrimination, is the issue within systemic racism because the system is based on the belief in the complete validity of white supremacy.
The first two points operate in tandem; racism exists both at a personal and systemic level and obfuscates the issue such that labelling racist behaviour as a racist gets dismissed easily by our culture of racism. You’ll hear dismissal such as “It’s mean”; “You can’t say anything these days without being called a racist”; “It’s part of the Left’s agenda to undermine our history”; etc. (For more on this point and a much more insightful elaboration, check out Robin DiAngelo’s increasingly popular White Fragility). When racist behaviour is not dismissed, it often has an equally problematic conclusion, which leads us to “Cancel Culture.”
Cancel Culture is often held in contempt by those who do not want to acknowledge the existence of racism (especially racism within). Those who might be inclined to take responsibility for their offensive, racist behaviour are often dismissed as “playing into” this culture built by entitled millennials and accountability is dismissed as virtue signalling, and Cancel Culture deemed a toxic suppression of freedoms. This interpretation of Cancel Culture is pervasive and, frankly, quite flawed. Instead, I argue that Cancel Culture, while problematic in its motivations, is important to supporting the movement for racial justice. I will explore this topic more thoroughly in my blog post here.