Stay with me because this might be a bit of a winding path:
A few weeks ago, one of my friends asked his friends who are concerned about racism to be actively anti-racist. Not to just call out racist behavior, but to “examine the ways in which your own behavior contributes to the maintenance of racist thinking and behavior.”
I am guessing that this is going to confuse some people who have been operating under the assumption that calling out racist behavior/speech/etc IS being actively anti-racist. I’m also guessing that these same people (maybe you, because I know it was me not that long ago) are feeling tension about Colin Kaepernick’s protest–very much supporting him, but feeling a little friction about the relationship of protest at a public job, how race plays into it, how the national anthem represents America–and are also confused about how to effectively support #BlackLivesMatter and be actively anti-racist in daily life if you can’t quit your job to protest.
I think white people don’t know how to be anti-racist and don’t know the difference between being not racist and being anti-racist. And Black people and other people of color keep asking us to get our shit together to really be anti-racist, but we don’t know how. We can post a zillion articles. We cry every time another Black man or woman or child is murdered. We can make conscious efforts to broaden the opinions and sources we read and watch to include Black voices and to get out of the echo chamber. But that doesn’t seem to be enough for our Black friends and we don’t know why, and they’re totally right but we’re doing what we think is the best we can without asking for cookies, and everyone’s frustrated.
Here’s the end of the yarn to start pulling on and unraveling: Human rights activists are asking white people to be willing to give up the systems that privilege us and that harm people of color. That sounds too big to really understand–all forest, no trees–but let’s dive in, because understanding these systems and how they affect you and other people (Black, white, Latinx, everyone) in this country and around the world is the first step in figuring out if you can give them up. (Spoiler alert: They’re hurting you, too, and you can give them up.)
We’re living inside layered, intersecting systems that were created by humans at different points in history to encourage certain behavior and deter other behavior. And those systems look “normal” to us so we don’t really see them–we just move around in them every day, with varying degrees of difficulty. But they’re all false systems that have been created, influenced by whoever had or wanted power, and by whatever those people with power were afraid of.
The easiest example is how neighborhoods and cities are zoned and taxed. Most municipalities in the U.S. grew organically at the beginning, but as soon as city planning happened, neighborhoods were zoned and taxed deliberately to keep certain people in certain areas and others in other areas. If you grew up in a city with different ethnic enclaves (or even remnants of those enclaves), you know where the Polish neighborhood is and the German neighborhood and the Irish neighborhood are. You also know where the Black neighborhood is. That didn’t just happen. It was planned and local government decisions reinforced those zones. Different communities of people (usually divided by race and ethnicity, although we say it’s by economic level, not admitting that race and economic status are entwined) had different amounts of influence, and the ones with more resources, time, energy, and access got to protect their zones, while the ones who started out in the hole didn’t have time or energy or skills to prevent the decisions that keep hurting their neighborhoods.
I grew up in Toledo, OH, which has one of the largest groups of people of Hungarian descent in the country, and my great-grandparents were immigrants from Hungary. My grandfather grew up in the Hungarian neighborhood of Toledo (which you know about if you ever watched the tv show M*A*S*H*, because the character Klinger always talked about Tony Packo’s restaurant, which is in the Hungarian neighborhood). Hungarians have some cultural tics that helped them become embedded in the community without ever really taking over, but they had just enough power that when the city wanted to slice their neighborhood in half by putting a major highway right down their main street, they pushed back and fought the placement of the road. Where did that road go? To another neighborhood, of people with less privilege than my Hungarian relatives had.
Where are the major highways in your city? What neighborhoods did they cut through and destroy? What people live there now, and what people lived there before those highways were built? Is there someplace in your area in which real estate prices are doubled when you cross a street? How did that happen? Who decided that houses in one neighborhood should cost twice as much as houses in another neighborhood? What happens to the tax bases (and along with that, the services the municipalities provide to citizens with their own money, such as fire fighting, law enforcement, schools, other infrastructure) of the two areas. How do resources stay in one community and not the other?
Zoning and decisions that are made about neighborhoods and communities have been used to harm Black people for hundreds of years. But I’ll argue that they aren’t helping you if you’re white, either. Thinking about my Hungarian ancestors: Why didn’t the city come up with a way to route the highway that did the least harm to all neighborhoods involved, or to harm the neighborhood that had the most resources and was therefore more resilient in the first place? Why did the Hungarian community have to rally and waste all that energy and their political capital on this highway issue, instead of using it to build something to make their neighborhood or the entire city stronger? How much energy and money and worry are YOU spending because of the pressures of living where you live? (Why do you live where you live, anyway? If you’re a parent, we know why. And that’s all tied to zoning and taxes and decisions that were made fifty years ago and continue to be made now. You’re supposed to be grateful about being up at night worrying about paying your mortgage, btw.)
Here’s another system that leaped to my attention the other day while I was watching tv: Credit and credit scores. Everyone in the U.S. who interacts with the banking system or who has ever bought anything without cash or a check has a credit score. And your credit score determines what rates you get when you take out a loan to buy anything like a house or car or even a mobile phone. For decades, citizens have been subject to the tyranny of these credit scores, but all they actually reflect is when and how you pay your bills. (With some weird finesse tossed in there, like never paying down your credit card balance all the way. If nothing else, that little quirk of the system exposes it as fabricated.) We’ve attached a moral value to having good credit, but John Wayne Gacy could have good credit if he pays his bills on time and the old lady down the street whose social security check gets stolen out of her mailbox could have horrible credit if she can’t pay a bill one month and then it balloons so she can’t catch up.
Since the recession, so many of us have gotten caught in some kind of credit problem, aided and abetted by bank and store and credit card policies of fines and penalties and ballooning interest rates so that if you fall behind one month it can take years to catch up. And the market has responded by detaching from the credit system just enough that they can still have customers. If you listen to local commercial radio in the car, especially country or hip-hop stations, you’ve heard commercials for car dealers who “finance any credit.” They have to, or else they wouldn’t have enough business, because so many people have non-perfect credit now. I’ve been watching this and wondering what was going to happen since the credit score system has lost its stranglehold on the public–we know that paying our bills is important, but we also know that getting behind and trying to catch up doesn’t mean we’re bad people any more than paying on time means we’re good people. And this secondary market is developing. What was going to happen next? (This is what nerds like me think about instead of reading suspense novels.)
And then it dropped, right in the middle of an episode of Fixer Upper: A commercial from one of the major credit reporting agencies (you tell me this isn’t a fabricated system dedicated to keeping certain groups privileged over others if there are THREE “credit reporting” companies) came on and it blew my mind. Soft focus, sweet inspiring music, and an image of an adorable baby learning to walk, with a voiceover (reassuring older male voice) telling us that building and maintaining our credit scores is “a skill.” This company is paying to run this ad to convince us that conforming to a system that actively ruins people’s lives and is less important now in the market is a necessary skill for being an adult in this country. The rhetoric is obvious and hilarious, except that people are going to believe it and feel bad about trying as hard as they can and still being trapped.
Does the credit system (as it exists now) help you? If your credit isn’t perfect, no, it doesn’t. And if your credit is perfect, it’s not helping you, either, because you’ve got enough stability that you’d be fine in whatever system existed instead.
Start thinking about these system around you. Are they helping you? Are they helping Black people and other people of color? Could you detach from them and be living a peaceful life if there was a more equitable replacement system? Here’s where I think some of us get hung up on the “detach from the racist systems” concept. I think we think that means that things would be flipped so Black people had privilege and white people would be disenfranchised, and who wants to be disenfranchised. But there are ways to structure systems that sustain and help everyone, in all areas of life, from our financial system to the way we structure work and work organizations to how we maintain peace in our communities to how we provide services to humans. They don’t look like the way things are run now. But I’m ready, because I have no emotional attachment to systems that aren’t built for the benefit of everyone.
Becoming aware and ready to detach from these systems isn’t being anti-racist, but it’s the foundational step to being ready to be anti-racist. And you’ll be shocked at how as soon as you start examining how things are structured around you and who they benefit, and understanding that you don’t owe your loyalty to any system, ways of thinking and acting and speaking that are actively anti-racist just start to make sense. Because being anti-racist is simply about respect and attention, and equal access.