My White Liberal friends turn an even whiter shade of pale – thank you, Procol Harum – at the suggestion that they could be asymptomatic carriers of the racism virus. But they are. We are.
Or at least I think I am asymptomatic. I am smart enough to know that I may not be as symptom-free as I think.
This is not YANGA – Yet Another Naval Gazing Apology – to appease white guilt. We have a problem. You cannot solve a problem until you identify it. Let’s call it what it is: asymptomatic racism.
Racism in the United States is a feature, not a bug. It is baked into the original design and codified in the original text of the Constitution. It is part of our cultural genetics. It is a skeuomorph, like the QWERTY keyboard, or that clicking sound that your phone makes when you take a picture, or the rivets on a pair of Levi’s; a design feature that was an inherent part of the original item but now exists only because it is familiar and expected to be there. And because it is familiar and expected, it goes unnoticed.
It becomes asymptomatic.
You are still a carrier. You can transmit the racist virus to others, even if you don’t realize you’re infected. You are just less obvious, less overt. More nuanced, but no less contagious. But you are still on the spectrum. It’s just part of the continuum of human behavior.
It’s like alcoholism or addiction, really. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics. Alcoholism is a genetic disease. Therefore, I made the decision early in my life, after the cultural ritual of excessive drinking required of music majors, that I would not drink. For me, the benefits of drinking did not outweigh the risks. Later, as a father, I explained to my son that this predisposition was not his fault, but it was his problem. I left it up to him to decide what he would do with that information. I hope he continues to choose wisely.
That is how racism is for White people in America. It may not be your fault, but it is your problem. It is up to you to decide what to do with that information.
We cannot solve the obvious signs of racism until we admit to our own subtle, inadvertent, subconscious racist behaviors. Asymptomatic racism occurs when White people try to tell Black people how they should organize or how Black groups should protest. It occurs when White people make racism about them instead of recognizing that this is not about them at all, except to the extent that we perpetuate the problem. There is functionally very little difference between a White organizer offering unsolicited advice to Black people on how to elect a candidate and an overt racist who says that Black people don’t have the same intelligence as Whites.
Just as I had to face the genetic facts of alcoholism, I also had to recognize that I could be an asymptomatic carrier of the racism virus. And, if I am completely honest, I am not always that asymptomatic. Nothing overt – asymptomatic contagions are by definition hard to identify – but in little things, like equating cultural differences to intelligence when in reality they are simply cultural differences. Like being more patient with some people than I am with others. I work on that constantly, especially with people with whom I have no direct personal relationship.
I work on not being racist the same way that I wish my grandfathers had worked on the alcoholism that eventually killed them.
For someone who is not into recreational chemicals, I have a lot of friends who are addicts and are in various stages of their struggle with their disease. That’s probably from my experience with my grandfathers. The most important thing I have learned from my friends who are addicts is that you stay healthy one day at a time. “I will not drink today” is a common phrase. Sometimes, when it is really hard, it’s “I will not drink right now.”
That is exactly how it is for me. “I will not be a racist TODAY.”
“I will not be a racist RIGHT NOW” means that I will not think that I know better about how to solve a problem because I am White. It means that I will not presume to understand what it is like to be a Black man, young or old, or a Black woman, or any other race other than my own. I can tell you what it’s like to be a straight White boy growing up in the South. Beyond that, I am glad to listen, but I probably have a different life experience.
Not being a racist means I will listen more than I talk. That I will hear what is being said, even when the language is not words but is something stronger. Like a protest.
Not being a racist is not about denying or ignoring differences. It’s about recognizing differences and accepting the fact that differences are OK. It’s about admitting to and dealing with America’s Original Sin on a personal level. It’s easy to blame things on systemic racism, or social norms, or implicit bias, but those are academic terms. This is personal. This is me.
It’s about making sure that this particular genetic disease is not passed along to the next generation.