Last week I just happened to turn on CNN at the exact moment that President Obama walked into the White House press conference to make a surprise statement in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin Murder trial outcome. I almost never watch TV during the day, but it was blazing hot and wicked humid out and I was stuck in the house enjoying the AC. A little bored, I turned on the TV just in time to hear the president make his extraordinary personal statement placing the reactions of many African-American people to the Zimmerman acquittal in the larger context of race and racism in the United States.
As someone who considers myself a white ally on issues of race and racism, I was impressed by Obama’s statement and his intentional injection of race and racism into the conversation about the Zimmerman trial. I am so sick of hearing white people proclaim that racism is over and that this particular incident had nothing to do with race. I am outraged that John Roberts and the majority of the Supreme Court believe that it is no longer necessary to monitor individual states’ efforts to make it difficult or impossible for poor people and people of color to vote because racism is over according to their white privileged world view.
I am angry that when African-Americans or other people of color point out how race and racism are still prevalent and relevant in the United States these efforts are attacked by white people as divisive attempts to revive racial tensions of the past or dismissed as “biased” or “too sensitive.” That is exactly what happened when Obama spoke out yesterday. The twitter world lit up with white conservative politicians and pundits dismissing and criticizing his heartfelt statement.
The problem is not calling attention to race and racism and demanding that we address the on-going institutional manifestations of it. The problem is our inability as a nation and as individual citizens to acknowledge that racism is still deeply embedded in the fabric of our culture and ourselves. It is NOT calling attention to the on-going significance of race and racism that is divisive; it is the refusal to consider the effects of racism that is divisive. It is the dismissal and erasure of the perspectives of people of color about their experiences in a white-dominated culture that are problematic.
I do not expect blatant white racists to change their perspectives any time soon. Neither do I expect the white conservative pundits who claim that we live in a post-racial society to understand the complacent naiveté of the white privilege embedded in their smug pronouncements. What I do expect is that white allies, me and white people like me who claim to abhor racism, will stand up and speak out alongside our friends and colleagues of color about the disturbing dismissal of race and racism in our national and personal conversations about justice, both legal and social.
It is simplistic and not productive to think that it is enough to see oneself as a “good” white person who does not participate in or condone overt acts of racism. This perspective places white people outside of racism looking in. It separates white people from the need to engage in self-reflection or action. This perspective enables “good” white people to stand on the sidelines without confronting our own ignorance, fear, guilt and privilege when it comes to difficult conversations about racism and the ways we good white people are complicit in perpetuating it. The truth is that white people, all white people, benefit from racism. Those of us who claim to believe in social justice need to confront this uncomfortable reality. Conversations about racism among white people are often complicated by our guilt, fear and ignorance. Avoiding conversations about racism because we feel guilty, afraid or uninformed is unacceptable. It is the nature of privilege that it is difficult for those who have it to see it. Becoming aware of one’s privilege can be a painful, yet liberating process. It is a process white people who claim to be allies must engage in. President Obama called this process soul searching. Unless “good” white people are willing to take on this challenge (and the choice to refuse the challenge grows out of our privilege), we will never effectively achieve racial justice and never understand our roles in either perpetuating or eliminating racism.
If you are wondering why, in an LGBT sports blog, I am talking about racism, then you are exactly who I would like to engage in this conversation. A national conversation among white people about white privilege and our roles in perpetuating racism, consciously or unconsciously, is not only about the larger cultural issues of racism and legal justice, voting rights, gun violence or poverty. We need to integrate these conversations into our everyday lives including our LGBT sports advocacy, education and research.
To the extent that we unconsciously think of whiteness as the “default” when we are talking about LGBT inclusion and discrimination in sports, we are guilty of privileging white people and ignoring the experiences of LGBT people of color.
Every time we plan an LGBT educational panel, conference program, research project, course syllabus or workshop and fail to talk about race and racism or include the voices of people of color, we perpetuate racism.
When we sit silently at LGBT sports educational or advocacy events that do not include people of color or don’t even notice this lack of representation, we are perpetuating racism.
When we leave it up to colleagues or friends of color to speak out about racism or to remind us to include voices of color, we are enjoying our white privilege.
When we discount the perspectives of people of color as “too sensitive” or “seeing racism everywhere,” we privilege our own perspectives and experiences over theirs.
When we congratulate ourselves for including a few people of color in our programs without challenging our white privilege, we are perpetuating racism.
If, when challenged about our ignorance, fear or lack of action about racism, we let our discomfort or hurt feelings silence us, we are retreating into our privilege.
If we claim to be white allies, but have not really taken on the challenge of educating ourselves about racism and the white privilege racism enables, then we are not really engaged in the kind of soul searching that is required to reach our goal of full LGBT inclusion in sports.
One of the keys to social change is identifying our spheres of influence and taking action to address social injustice in those spheres. We must start with ourselves and talk to other white people about white privilege and racism and then work with people of color to challenge racism with the individuals and organizations we are a part of.
That would be one way that we in the LGBT sports advocacy world can challenge the white lie that race no longer matters and that racism is no longer a problem in or out of sports. I am in. Are you?