Wait, am I racist? Reflections on implicit biases and microaggressions

One of my worst fears is to be called a racist. Yet, I know that by being complicit in the systemic racism that exists in our country, the very system that grants me access to power and privilege, I am letting racism perpetuate. So what does that make me? Am I racist? Let’s break it down, shall we?

I confront my implicit biases, or “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner” on a regular basis. Why am I more wary of a black solicitor at my door rather than a white solicitor? Why do I consider crossing the street when a group of black teenagers are approaching and I rarely have the same impulse when I encounter a group of white teenagers? Implicit biases such as these pop up frequently and every time I try to take notice and challenge myself to question the validity in my knee-jerk reactions. In essence, I have to fight against my subconscious, racist tendencies to keep my biases in check. I fight this fight so I don’t pass along my biases unintentionally to my children. I fight this fight so I can be a better person and a better member of society. But I have to constantly fight this fight.

When implicit biases like the examples I state above (solicitors, crossing the street) turn into actions, they are known as microaggressions. Racial Microaggressions “are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” Just like I’m aware of my own implicit biases, I often notice comments or microaggressions made by my friends and family. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out this really great read about white fragility. The article pretty much has my number. For me, my greatest weakness lies in my discomfort in confronting another white person who has crossed the line into the questionable or offensive. Y’all already know about my adherence to decorum, which prevents me from wanting to create any sort of conflict in a social setting. But by allowing questionable comments to slide, by protecting whomever I’m conversing with from feeling uncomfortable or attacked, I’m letting racism perpetuate.

Confession time. Recent comments I have let slide:

-Acquaintance: “Our preschool is so wonderful, isn’t it? I mean, the demographics are perfect.” (school in question was almost 100% white)

-New friend: “Our daughter isn’t friends with him anymore. He’s turned into a little thug.” (discussing why two 3 year olds no longer played together at day care. The boy described as a thug is black)

These are just two of many. The first was a wink and a nod that honestly shocked me. It was said after a group exercise class as we walked to our cars. And it wasn’t until I was in my car that I fully absorbed what she was trying to say and I was so mad that I wasn’t quick enough to respond at the time. The second comment was said amongst a group of parents while our kids played all around us. A red flag immediately went up, primarily because my 3-year-old son displays many of the same behaviors used to describe the “thug”: pushes, hits, pulls hair. But my blonde haired, blue-eyed baby will never be called a thug. In this instance I managed to say “you are talking about a 3-year-old!” but I did not push the topic further. I was not sure how to give feedback in a way that would be received and not make the person feel attacked.

Scenarios like this happen often in my life, perhaps even daily. Give me 10-20 minutes after the offending comment is made, and I’m fully prepared with an appropriate way to respond. But in the moment, when I’m caught off guard, I falter and ultimately rarely say something. And the truth is, there are even more subtle comments than the two above that feel even more difficult to challenge. I’m scared people will feel like I’m judging them as if I’m some perfect specimen that lacks a racist bone in my body. I’m scared that people will feel uncomfortable to be around me. I’m scared that I’ll lose friends. And I’m scared to admit all of this to you, dear readers, but I do so because I want to change. I recognize by not demanding better of those around me, I’m perpetuating racism and I need to take personal responsibility. My greatest fear shouldn’t be about being CALLED a racist; I should be more concerned that I’m not ACTING like a racist.

I’m taking action as a parent and striving to raise racially and socially conscious children. I’m taking action and challenging my implicit biases as they arise. But for the most part I’m not taking action with other adults when it comes to protecting white fragility. With close friends and family, I am able to challenge statements similar to the ones made above because that level of rapport is established. We trust one another implicitly and know the love and bond is unconditional. Where I particularly struggle is when the comments are made by acquaintances or new friends.

So am I a racist? No, I don’t think by definition I am a racist. But I am a contributing member to maintaining the status quo, so therein lies the rub. But I want to change. I need to change. This is where you come in, readers. Are there trainings on how to challenge racist or questionable comments amongst peers? Are you willing to share your story of challenging a racist or biased remark made by a peer or colleague? Are you willing to share your story of when a statement you made was challenged and how you reacted? Let us learn from you! And for the record, I am ready and willing to receive feedback on questionable comments that escape my own lips. Please help me by noticing when I falter.

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