I was lucky enough that I went to bed last night before the news broke about the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. At least I got a good night’s sleep, unlike a lot of people who must have lain awake all night with that on their minds. This morning, though, I saw the news, and I saw already how the facts were being shaped to reflect this ongoing belief in white America that racism isn’t a problem or isn’t a white problem anyway.
The suspect in this attack has been apprehended, and he’s already made clear that he went to Emanuel AME to “kill black people.” Yet again, I see news outlets and private individuals playing up this idea that the shooter was a lone gunman. Just one white guy with bad intentions. When I look at pictures of the suspect, and his clothing, and his license plate, I see a lesson that I have learned repeatedly about racism.
As a white woman from the Midwest, I was raised in an environment that saw nothing wrong with racism, as long as you were polite about it. This wasn’t the kind of racism that involved hurling racist epithets at people’s faces, or burning crosses, or terrorizing people. It was just this low grade hum of acceptance for racism and racist language.
That “polite racism” has not gone away. I have worked in many different offices, with all kinds of people, and without exception, in every all-white workplace, white people have felt that it was okay to send emails containing racist jokes or to make racist remarks in the break room. White people have felt that it was safe to say these things among other white people.
When I have spoken up to tell people that their behavior is wrong and offensive, the same thing has happened every time. The polite racists don’t stop sending racist jokes via email, they just take me off the email list. The polite racists don’t stop making racist remarks in the break room, they just fall silent when I walk in. Remember that: just because you don’t notice racism, doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s at the heart of white privilege.
“Polite racism” is not harmless. It is not “just words.” That low grade hum of hatred is fuel for more deadly forms of hatred. Look at the suspect in the AME massacre. On his coat he wears the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of Rhodesia. On his car, he proudly sports a license plate with the Confederate flag. The same flag that still flies over the South Carolina capitol. These are not harmless icons any more than a Nazi swastika is a harmless icon. And the AME shooter, he didn’t make these badges himself. He didn’t make that license plate. He bought them. They were available for sale because of the existence of hate organizations who use those emblems to promote racist hatred. That is not a lone gunman. That is a mass murderer fueled by a culture of hate.
A former classmate of the AME shooter says that he “made a lot of racist jokes.” So this young man made racist jokes that nobody took seriously, wore multiple emblems from nations that espoused racist beliefs and policies, and apparently nobody saw a problem with that. Nobody in his family or circle of friends said, “That’s not okay. That’s a destructive kind of hatred.” Now tell me again how he acted alone. To me, that sounds like he acted with the full support of his community.
So what are white people supposed to do, if they find this hatred sickening, if they want to put an end to racism in America? As I’ve experienced, speaking up didn’t end it, but that’s only because in most instances I was the only person speaking out against it. I think of a racist email sent by a former coworker to more than twenty people in our office. I hit Reply All and indicated that the email was offensive and wrong. Now imagine if every other person who received that email had simply chimed in to say, “Yeah. That’s not okay.” That’s how you stop “polite racism.”
No, you’re not responsible for every white person in America, but to some degree you are responsible for everyone in your circle of family and friends. When somebody you love tells a racist joke, tell them that’s not okay. When somebody you love sports a hate emblem, ask them to find a different outfit. When somebody you love engages in “polite racism,” shut that down. When you remain silent, you become complicit. Everyone has to speak up every single time, no matter how uncomfortable it is. If that seems exhausting, imagine what it’s like being black in America. Then imagine that by speaking out, you might just save the life of somebody else’s loved one.
A great article about the Birmingham church bombing that helped me put my head on forwards today is here.