'Goodness' is not a miracle cure for racism

Jessica DeBruin
August 9, 2017

Spoons with smiley facesThere was a time I liked to think of myself as a good person. I did all the things I thought I was supposed to. I tried to be kind and courteous to people. I did my best not to make assumptions about strangers. I was by all accounts a law abiding citizen. I volunteered occasionally, and donated money to organizations I thought were doing good in the world. I was both literally and figuratively a girl scout.

Like most “good people” if you had asked me if I was racist I would have answered with a resounding “Of course not!” But I have come to learn it’s not that simple. I would love to share a heartfelt story about a big “ah-ha!” moment that broadened my perspective, but truthfully there isn’t one. Instead the process of unpacking and challenging my own racial bias has been like stretching a tight muscle. It happens in little increments day by day. Some days I’m not as flexible as I was the day before, and I know if I stop stretching I will undo much of my progress.

Growing up as a mixed brown and white woman in a mostly white suburb I was used to being on the lookout for micro-aggressions and outright hostility. What evaded me was the idea that I could be continuing the cycle of racism. “I’m brown, so obviously I’m not racist” was a favorite refrain.

I have come a long way over the last 10 or 15 years. I am fortunate to have been exposed to brilliant, passionate, empathetic people from many walks of life. By remaining open to the experiences they have chosen to share with me I have come across perspectives I could have never imagined. It is through many small exchanges that I have grown, and learned how much I still need to grow. I consider myself lucky to have been challenged to think beyond my own world view. The challenge now is to continue the work.

Even as an advocate for racial and social justice, I am not free from subconscious bias. I’m talking about ideas, attitudes, preferences that I didn’t even realize affect the way I see the world.

I like to think of these as the dust bunnies that live under your couch. Lord knows where they came from or how they keep coming back, you can’t always see them, but they’re definitely there and you should really clean them out once in a while. Only now imagine those dust bunnies have fangs and attack when challenged. Yikes!

I have my work cut out for me. And there will probably always be room for me to grow, and attitudes I need to re-evaluate. Am I still a good person? Probably. But I have come to learn that goodness is not a miracle cure for racism. And racism is all around us, and within us too.

In difficult times “good” people seem to come out of the woodwork. We see bad things happening, people hurting, people struggling. We hear about people being murdered over the most trivial things. And it makes us feel something. It is upsetting to see so much pain and injustice and feel incapable of doing anything to change it. It is scary, frustrating, at times rage inducing. Without an outlet for all these feelings they can become very uncomfortable to hold on to.

But rather than turn our discomfort towards something productive, we go into defense mode. WE did not do that! WE did not choose or create the sordid racial past of our nation, and WE do not commit hate crimes. We are good people! When we shut down like this we are not using our goodness to help others, but to protect ourselves. And if we cannot look at the ways we remain complicit in systems of institutionalized racism, what good is all that goodness?

There is a sense of safety in “goodness.” We can remain comfortable in our denial. We never have to look at the ways we unwittingly contribute to systems of oppression. We don’t have to consider our recklessness because we know deep down we are good. We are free of the burden of subconscious bias. But what change has “goodness” alone ever affected? When has passivity ever lead to progress?

We have accepted both goodness and racism as states of being, not states of doing. In Spanish there are two different verbs that describe states of being: ser and estar. Both mean “to be”, but one is steady and relatively unchanging, while the other is temporary and may exist or not at any given time.

We often think of and discuss racism as if it were “ser” - a permanent reflection of one’s character and intent. One is either racist or not. In this framework there is no room for good people who do or think racist things. It keeps us at an arm’s length from our own collusion in systems of oppression. All it takes is one bit of good intention to save us from having to confront our own bad behavior. This kind of thinking has brought us to a stalemate in discussions of racial justice.

Instead, let’s consider goodness and racism as an “estar” - a series of many moments, of choices big and small, conscious and subconscious that we make on an ongoing basis.

Racism is a state anyone can occupy at any time, even good people. Racism may not be the entirety of who we are as a person.

I am not Jessica the racist any more than I am Jessica the lazy. But I can still harbor racist ideas and biases just like I can still have a lazy day like no other. So what do we do with all that? How can we clean house and hold ourselves accountable?

Changing problematic thoughts and behaviors is no easy task. There’s just no quick fix. You can’t slap a COEXIST bumper sticker on your car and be liberated from racism or subconscious bias. That does not mean you can’t do better with time and practice. To work against the forces of racism it must be challenged again and again. This becomes an ongoing meditation of sorts, a practice we return to regularly.

But before we get to the how, it’s important to understand what the concept of institutionalized racism really means. Most of us are familiar with racism on a very specific scale. Racism calls to mind things like racial slurs, segregation, apartheid, hate speech and hate groups. These make racism seem like something that is immediately obvious. Institutionalized racism challenges us to think beyond the obvious.

Institutionalized racism means that racist ideals are built into the framework of many organizations and customs that we rely on every day. It means that many trusted systems of order are either created to uphold the presumption of white supremacy, or are biased to favor whiteness. To folks who have not experienced this reality first-hand, institutionalized racism sounds like a kind of conspiracy theory. Surely racism on that big a scale seems like it would be obvious, right? Because we tend to think of racism in hindsight, we believe if it were in action all around us we would notice. We would put a stop to it! But our disbelief only signals how effective institutionalized racism can be.

The institutions we interact with impact the way we perceive world.

Take broken windows policing. The theory behind it is that a “tough on crime” approach to smaller offenses will keep criminal activity low overall and discourage more serious future offenses. But this practice is disproportionately applied to low income communities of color, and the result is that more people in these neighborhoods may have records for minor offenses. People outside these communities see only the crime rate statistics and get the idea that people of color are somehow more likely to be criminals.

These biases get warped and repeated over and over. A white college student who smokes pot is just a kid experimenting and shouldn’t have their potential ruined for something so inconsequential. But a young person of color smoking pot is sketchy, lazy, up to no good. In this scenario the person of color does not share the same potential as the white person … and for what reason other than race?

This is all pretty daunting. But what’s really impressive is how self-sustaining institutionalized racism is.

If you are white there is probably a good chance you don’t realize how many times your whiteness has helped you out. That’s no accident. A sense of personal satisfaction or even moral superiority is easy to cultivate when you are being graded using a different rubric. Isolation from non-white narratives contributes to a false notion of equity.

The histories of people of color are rarely taught in depth as part of a mainstream education. In popular media stories often still revolve around white characters. When people of color are represented it is usually through a white lens, and rarely reflects the nuance of our communities. This is calculated. It means that white folks, and even people of color stay isolated from these narratives. So when people of color speak up and share our experiences we are met with skepticism.

And that brings us to the million dollar question: What good can I do?

The first step is to identify your own bias. It requires you to step out of your comfort zone and listen to the experiences of others without comment or judgement.

The good news is there is a wealth of really smart and perceptive work out there from folks of every stripe. From books, magazines, and op-eds, to music and artwork there are many ways to engage with perspectives other than your own. Tools like social media make it easier than ever to be exposed to differing viewpoints. Get out there and learn about your fellow humans! This will reveal where and how you need to keep your assumptions in check.

First, a disclaimer: Being open to new perspectives does not mean demanding that the people of color in your life become your teachers. What may seem like a benign question to you may be offensive or difficult for someone to explain to you. And not every person of color wants to break down these really challenging concepts to people who haven’t lived them - even really nice “good” people. When you ask a black woman why it’s not cool to touch her hair or a Chicanx person whether it’s okay for you to wear that poncho on Cinco de Mayo, you are creating an expectation for them to shoulder the emotional labor of bridging racial divides. People of color are not required to teach you how to be a better person. It’s great to want to understand people better, but make sure you’re not assuming they owe you an explanation of their world view.

The next step is observation and patience. When we see our own racism for the first time, the impulse can be to try to shut it all down at once. Unfortunately, our brains just don’t work that way. Like weeds in a garden, bias must be uprooted regularly. You will discover and rediscover biases you never knew you had. Notice when they come up and why. Then try to do better. You may not always be able to repair the damage done, but you can correct yourself, note it for the future and move on. Practicing accountability over time makes it easier to catch yourself before you totally step in it.

Now for the really hard part: You’re gonna mess this up. Probably a lot. Remember we’re talking about subconscious bias here. Your racist moments will not be obvious to you. When you see your mistakes you are going to want to retreat as fast as you can back into “good person” territory. Resist that urge! Your feelings are not more important than some else’s humanity.

Instead, try thinking less about your intentions and more about the person you’re interacting with. If I am a guest in someone’s home and I accidentally break a plate or worse some kind of family heirloom I simply can’t un-break it. I will undoubtedly feel embarrassed but if I situate my response around my embarrassment I will bumble on until it becomes the responsibility of my host to make me feel better for my carelessness. That may make me feel better about myself, but the plate will still be broken. Apologize sincerely and use your experience to do better in the future. Don’t look for a way out of your own sense of guilt. Consider if there is something you can act on to do-right by the person you have wronged.

In all of this the most important skill we can learn is to sit with our own discomfort. The reality is that we live in a world fraught with injustice. Racism has been used to subjugate people for generations. It is unacceptable and it is not over. None of us created white supremacy, but we all have to live with the effects of the concept to some degree. If we can reflect on what makes us uncomfortable and why, we start the process of unpacking our participation in this system.

I find my own discomfort flares up when I see a dissonance between the things I believe and the consequences of my actions. I think this happens a lot to us “good people.” We see the ways our intentions and our impact don’t always align and we don’t know what to do with that. The hard truth is that if discomfort is the primary effect racism has on your life, you are benefiting from a privilege many will never know. The very least any of us can do is to push past discomfort find ways to act with integrity.

We don’t need to be the best at not being racist to challenge ourselves to do better. When we accept our imperfections instead of excusing institutionalized racism we lay the groundwork for change. If we strive for self-awareness and make small changes when we can, we may find we are capable of more than we realize. Let’s strive to do good, rather than to be good!


Headshot of Jess DeBruinJessica DeBruin is a writer and theater professional living in New York City, dedicated to creating and supporting intersectional feminist art and media.




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