By Ana Anderson || Teaching Professor of Spanish
I am racist.
Everything in me tells me I’m not supposed to admit this. I’m supposed to fight tooth and nail to prove this statement wrong. I’m an ally! I am totally against police brutality! I do everything I can to treat all my students fairly regardless of their race! I even (gasp) share Black Lives Matter posts on Facebook! I took part in the rally on campus last Fall! So clearly, I’m not racist. Right?
Except that, if I’m honest with myself, those things aren’t the whole picture. Of course I can avoid showing overt racism. But that’s a low bar. What about the less obvious stuff? Once I examine that, I’m unwillingly forced back to my original statement.
I am racist.
Some personal context: I grew up in a small town (100 people) in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska. There was exactly one black student in my entire high school and only a handful of other minority students. No one I knew was “racist”–because by that I understood only overt acts of hatred toward people of color and use of the “N” word. To me, “affirmative action” meant “reverse racism/sexism” because I continuously heard of white men I knew being passed over for promotions in favor of women and black people at their jobs in a nearby city. I grew up believing it was a bad time to be white.
I didn’t know it then, but I was racist.
I went to a small liberal arts college, also in Nebraska, made up of also heavily white and upper-middle-class students. This is when I started hearing about white privilege, and I thought the concept was absolute crap. My family was NOT privileged: divorce, various addictions, mental hospitalization, physical and emotional abuse, and relying on public assistance for food and utilities were the hallmarks of my family. I was, frankly, disgusted by the idea that anyone would assume I was privileged just because of the color of my skin. Racism was, in my mind, the exception rather than the rule, and in any case secondary to socioeconomic classism.
Though I would never have believed it at the time, I was racist.
I went to grad school and became close friends with a feminist. That was actually my first exposure to feminism as a positive rather than something to be ridiculed, and it took literally all five years of grad school before I felt comfortable adopting the label of “feminist” for myself. That was in 2017. This is relevant because nothing about racism really “clicked” for me until my feminist friend taught me about intersectionality. Yes, there were several factors that had made my life harder than some, but -and this was a revolutionary thought- my skin color wasn’t one of them. I finally realized that I was privileged.
Even so, I would never have admitted then what I know now: I was racist.
My first day of my first class teaching at F&M (Fall 2017), I had planned to have a warm-up discussion in my Spanish class about the confederate monument controversy going on at the time. It seemed like a good way to gauge my students’ language levels, get us into the topic of Civil War that would be the theme of the class, and (bonus!) demonstrate that I was “woke.” Before class, I assigned a news article and a short written reflection on the monument debate. And that’s when it happened. Having read my students’ written reflections on the topic before class, I became aware that there were some students in the class who didn’t think the monuments were a problem. I also knew that I had a few black students in that class. I nearly panicked. Hoping to avoid a tense situation and naively wishing to avoid putting my students of color on the spot, I let students break into their own groups and debate either that topic OR a different, non-social topic (Pirates or Ninjas?) instead. Only later did I come to realize that I had failed my students that day. Not only did I equate condoning vs. rejecting racism with personal preference of fictionalized characters, I also gave every white student in the room (and myself) a free pass to avoid examining the issue publicly. By permitting the issue to be silenced in this way, I contributed to the problem and committed an act of white violence against my black students.
Though at the time I would have argued that my intentions were good, I was racist.
After the protests last fall, I told one of the students who spoke how impressed I was with how articulately she communicated such a traumatic topic. Everything in me said that I was being supportive and encouraging. But just in the last two weeks I’ve learned: I was racist.
I am racist when I implicitly convey the notion that calm and articulate speech is surprising from black students. I am racist when I shy away from talking about racial justice. I am racist when I fail to acknowledge the privileges I enjoy, and when I equate my struggles with those of my black neighbors, colleagues, and students. And, perhaps most pervasive of all, I am racist when I hesitate to call out racism in myself and others out of fear of how white friends and family will react.
I have learned a lot since high school, since grad school, since joining F&M, and even since last Fall. I say this not as a sort of self-congratulation (e.g. “Look at me and how woke I am now!”), but rather to highlight that, at every point in life when I have thought I wasn’t racist, I still was. Telling myself that my racism is a thing of the past…is racist.
I have spent this entire time talking about myself, a white woman, thereby taking up space that could have been ceded to black and brown voices. I do so in the hope that admitting to my own racism may help someone else recognize their own. But make no mistake: my use of this space could justly be criticized as racist.
I may never fully stop learning that I am racist. But I can stop seeing that learning as a source of shame and rather see it as a call to action. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, I am learning to know better.
I am racist. And I must do better.
Prof. Ana Anderson is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Spanish Writing Center. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org