Check Your Privilege: How to Learn Not to Be a Racist

by: Kevin Sparrow

I’ve been a racist since at least the age of seven. While my mother and brother sat through his fifth-grade orientation, I was forced to wait and entertain myself with only a notebook, some broken crayons and a chalkboard in a tucked away corner of the middle school library. I was an avid reader, but being on the verge of first grade, the big kid books that surrounded me were daunting–I could only fantasize about the illustrated young reader books I was familiar with at that time.

A partial word from one story that I had read recently stuck in my mind because I found it funny, but unfortunately it was only the suffix of what turned out to be “Piggers,” one of the characters of the story. I could not come up with the first letter for the life of me and was strangely methodical, so I decided to write the letters I did know on the chalkboard and file through consonants alphabetically until I reached the one that sounded correct. Here and there I would take a moment with letters that seemed to fit before moving on, but I deliberated a little too long on “n,” coinciding with the moment one of the mothers arrived late. The first thing she saw was that word and me puzzling it out. She looked at me enraged and said, “Erase that right now,” so quickly and sternly I of course obeyed and just sat in my seat until it was time to go. She left within a matter of seconds to join the meeting in progress, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach, not understanding what she had been so upset about.

It was a long few months later, maybe even a year, when I saw a story on ABC News discussing “the N word” and recalled that moment. Her reaction made some sense, though I still did not comprehend the full historical context of the term and still felt guilty without understanding why. No adult had ever discussed that term with me or the history surrounding it; that’s not something the American Girls series touched on even with one of my favorite characters, Addy, a former slave. I don’t think we even had discussions of race in the classroom until I was in fifth grade myself and was reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

I grew up in a mostly homogenized small city an hour’s drive west of Chicago that saw some diversity due to the draw of the state university. We had multi-racial classrooms but being primarily white and solidly middle-class, I don’t know how impactful those conversations were–racial matters and systems of privilege seemed far removed in what we idealized as an egalitarian community but was one that obscured the divisions between white, black, Asian and Latino students. I look back now and understand how necessary and just that guilt I felt about writing that word was, and that previous efforts to feel better about being racist were to alleviate that guilt, not own it.

Racist behavior is often not intentional; in fact, it is more often borne out of assumption than acknowledged discrimination. A major flaw in anti-racist rhetoric is much of it seems centered around trying not to appear racist rather than just not actually being racist. White privilege perpetually (read: every day) benefits white people, so we benefit from racism even without electing to. And that makes us racist.

I have seen more times than I care to, in real life and online comment boards, people responding to a racially charged event or story to be careful when “throwing around the word racist;” this equates the damage done by the original oppression suffered by the marginalized individual or group to a perceived damage to someone’s character. This only serves to derail the conversation and keep us all at odds, and worse, it excuses that racist behavior so no ownership is taken by the injuring party. White people: we are racists inherently by virtue of living in a system that advantages our saturation of melanin and easy assimilation. Not wanting to be racist and avoiding doing or saying things that read to us as overtly racist doesn’t take the burden of responsibility off our shoulders. If your end goal is not being racist, you’re not doing a good job being an ally. You’re turning the focus of the dialogue back on yourself and away from listening to and advocating for others.

Don’t think claiming color-blindness, or its twin “post-racial,” gets you off the hook. These are tools of cultural erasure; they promote assimilation, validating a white experience for all at the expense of unique worldviews of people of color. It ignores the realities of race and how it affects class and mobility in America. The desire to want racial equality requires work and it requires being aware of how you are being treated differently from your friends of color. Color-blindness is the band-aid solution toward racial harmony, and it’s one of those soggy, gross band-aids your roommate leaves behind in the shower.

There are no easy outs; in fact, there are really no outs that aren’t cop-outs. Don’t let the title of this piece confuse you: this isn’t a how-to guide or recipe. There are not simple things you can do everyday to simply not be racist, though you should stop slinging around “ghetto,” “thug,” “nappy” and other appropriative words with abandon. Working toward ending systemic oppression–not racism– is about taking responsibility. Awareness of privilege is your responsibility. Listening to your friends and not trying to pacify or explain racist behavior is your responsibility. Advocating for marginalized people is your responsibility. This isn’t a call to other white people to sit down and shut up; more of a sit back, listen and learn from people of color, and then advocate.

So, how can we not be racist? The answer is currently that we can’t, not without major systemic changes. What we can do is check privilege, be fierce allies and call out other people when they are engaging in racist behavior, educating them in what constitutes racist behavior. I’m still a racist and I’m not trying not to be because it’s not an achievable goal. What I am doing is being better to people marginalized because of race and working to understand mutual needs I can help take action on. And maybe I’ll finally learn a thing or two about what is okay to write on a chalkboard.

Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness is both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.

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4 responses to “Check Your Privilege: How to Learn Not to Be a Racist

  1. Hi Kevin,

    I am also very interested in being more vocal about racial disparities in society and shedding as much light on institutionalized racism… and I’m especially upset about gun control and economic disparity. Having taught high school in Detroit where 100% of the students were from low income families, I could go on and on about the destructive force of poverty. So thanks for blogging about this issue.

    I’m commenting just speaking for myself, but I must say I’m really put off when motivated and change-oriented people like yourself, who are working to make things better decide to bluntly say, as you did “I’m a racist and I have to own it cause it’s impossible for me not to be racist as a white person.” I understand the point, but I believe you really must phrase it differently… we are all trapped in a broken unequal system that has a strongly evidenced bias for white America over other racial minorities, and sometimes we can do very little not to participate in this system (stopping short of shipping ourselves out to a deserted island outside of society altogether.) For one your statement erases degrees of racism, a distinction that incredibly noteworthy. You are not racist like others (the ignorant) are racist, and still others (the hateful) are racist. Secondly the statement feels misguided, hopeless, and hurtful to pretty much everyone. It’s a statement you shouldn’t feel comfortable saying to anyone… and the reason you shouldn’t feel comfortable saying “I’m a racist” isn’t from some lack of awareness about inherently systemic racism, or the continued presence of deliberately blatant racist forces. You shouldn’t feel comfortably saying it because it aligns you (even peripherally) with something you’re not…. and for some if not most people (outside of IN OUR WORDS) hearing you, your words would feel confusing and frightening.

    Forgive the imperfect comparison, but I imagine a wonderfully supportive straight person telling me that they are homophobic and can’t even pretend NOT to be homophobic since they themselves are not gay and live in a heteronormative system… ugh. fine.

    I’d probably awkwardly say thank you? but then I’d say they’re wrong- they are NOT homophobic, they make conscious choices not to be, they are aware of what they do and they write blog posts about it… I’d tell them to just keep being awesome, leading by example. It’s absurd to me that a supportive person would try to show support by displaying some kinda inherent bigotry just to prove they are aware it might exist somewhere deep inside them. Yet maybe that’s what In Our Words is for, feeling some kinda pride in simultaneous self-depreciating and self-aggrandizing statements or vetting everything we’ve ever felt without a thought about its value in reader/listener interpretation.

    Anyways Kevin, I just wouldn’t call yourself a racist. If you have this unshaken conviction you must bare yourself to the world as a racist then please use an adjective like “unintentional” or “tiny-bit” or even “self-pitying” before the word racist. This will set you apart from people who are “massively” “unapologetically” or “ignorantly” racist. If admitting a problem is the first step, I’d say you’re well beyond step one and you can leave that flag behind you, there’s negligible value in dragging it out to prove a point and the risks of being misunderstood are so much greater.

    I hope that’s not too harsh, but those are my 2 cents,

    • Thanks for your perspective, Mike. And no worries, I did not find this too harsh. But I do stand by my original statements in the piece and intention of taking ownership of my role in systemic oppression, however indirect it may seem.

      My concern with dividing out degrees of racism and setting myself apart from more malignant forms of racism stems from indirectly creating an acceptable amount of racism (see this Jezebel article on hipster racism for how unchecked racism can easily take over a subgroup):, which there is not one. Symbolically, it would be like saying there’s an acceptable amount of mercury or radiation poisoning in your water. At this point in time, for me anyway, I feel the need to be wholly invested in checking my own biases and building out how I work with other people from there without equivocating. I’m not so concerned with my own image as I am with effecting change around me.

  2. Pingback: Sunday Link Roundup | Brute Reason·

  3. I spent some time in a Texas penitentiary. Texas prisons are especially backwards and crowded and the horror of being there is matched only by the hate.

    When the white inmates would walk through the “gauntlet” – a corridor heading into the shower rooms – we would have to pass a throng of black men who would stand with their backs against the wall, masturbating. Many would try to ejaculate on the white guys walking past them.

    I’ve never seen a white man do this. Have you?

    Sure, there are lots of arguments like what about pedophiles? Most of them are white. I know. But people like that are mentally ill, and they are, I’m guessing, about 1 in 3,000. In the black prison population its like 1 out of 3. Are they all crazy, or is there something to the rape-culture that makes more sense to them? Did my white privilege cause this behavior?

    Prejudice is ignorance. Its a kind of contempt prior to investigation. What I feel is the result of having their gorilla culture revealed to me in the form of a daily sexual assault.

    I’m not sure I disagree with you, but if you want a real clear picture, go get yourself locked up for awhile. Following the example of Jane Goodall, Do your research, Go live with the Gorillas in the Mist.

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