My Inheritance and Rejection of “I Am Not a Racist”

Note: I write this blog as a white woman especially for readers with white privilege who have ever thought, “I’m not a racist,” as I have. All readers welcome. 

There are no words to do justice to the traumas in our nation right now.  As a white woman, I cannot and will not speak to the experience of being Black in America.

What I write to is white distancing from racism. It is in me and the air I breathe.

Breathe.

The inequity of that word is heavy.  There is so much privilege in the fact that I can breathe.

I’m going to get personal here to challenge what I see as a national barrier to antiracist change.

Inheriting Dissociation 

I have honestly been in such a state of rage and grief over the murders of George Floyd, Breaona Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, I could not approach writing a blog. 

My flesh and blood have been conditioned over twelve generations to dissociate from white-on-Black trauma. My nervous system has been conditioned to numb or get overwhelmed – which serves the same purpose: to make me freeze or go silent.  

But I resist. I will not be silent on racism. White silence perpetuates white supremacy. 

That’s what my ancestors did for eleven generations. It’s why I didn’t even know my family’s legacy in the story of American racism – until I found a clue four years ago in family letters, and started to dig.  

History Matters

As James Baldwin wrote in his essay The White Man’s Guilt, “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Inheriting Blindness

My New England ancestors caused white-on-Black violence via chattel slavery in the 1600s and 1700s. Then slavery was abolished in the North, and the next three generations of my family made their living as merchants. Through trade of cotton, coffee, and sugar, they profited from the racial violence of slavery in the Caribbean and American South. That ended when slavery ended, and somewhere between my great-great grandfather the lawyer, my grandfather the businessman and my father the scientist, my family “forgot” slavery existed in New England.  

I grew up in California, with no sense of American history or my family history.  I grew up thinking racism was deeply disturbing – and had nothing to do with us. 

The Problem of “I’m Not a Racist” 

Of all the horrors of the past week, the words on Amy Cooper’s lips keep repeating in my brain: “I am not a racist.” Those were the first words of what she considered an apology the day after she used race to threaten and endanger the life of Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black birder who had asked her to put her dog on a leash. 

Inheriting Distancing

Her words “I am not a racist” haunted me, because they didn’t let me distance myself from her racism. I was outraged by Amy Cooper’s actions, which put an innocent man in danger. I applied the fast certainty my whiteness has trained me to embody to shun her and all she did, keeping her actions far from anything I would ever think of, let alone do. 

It’s so much easier to criticize someone else’s racism than unpack the inherited racism in me.

Leaning In to My Racism

After my first reaction of repulsion, however, I challenged myself to think again. I asked myself:  What can I learn from Cooper’s actions? What’s familiar? What have I done, or might I do, that I can change?

Her words, “I am not a racist” were uncomfortably familiar. I probably said that. I definitely thought it. For most of my life, it was central to my identity and worldview. 

White Appearances Over Black Lives

“I’m not racist,” as Amy Cooper demonstrated, is a statement that actually commuicates “I am more concerned with your perception of me than with changing racism. I’m unwilling to listen, learn or change.” 

This week, I learned about the Truth and Reconciliation process in Greensboro, North Carolina  – a process for healing from a 1979 massacre of protesters. Some of the major opponents to this truth-seeking process were white people who wanted to avoid digging up history unflattering to them.  

Again, the desire to keep up white appearances blocks progress towards actual anti-racist change. White appearances over Black lives.

I don’t want to say I relate to that. Unfortuantely, I do. In the first decades of my life, caring about how people saw me in the story of racism functioned to keep me silent on racial injustice. Believing “I am not racist” kept me from doing inside-out work to actually change racist conditioning in me. 

Stop Saying Those Words

I’m not woke. I have not arrived. I’m bumbling imperfectly, but with urgency, to dismantle white-supremacy conditioning in my mind and soul so I can stop being part of the problem, and become part of the solution.

“I am not a racist” is a wall to this work. It is a plea to preserve complicity and wrap it in a morally righteous bow.

I won’t say those words anymore, and do not want to hear them. Instead of labeling ourselves and each other, let’s connect at the edge of what we don’t know—to courageously unlearn white supremacy. Meet me in shared humility to follow Black-led organizations and take anti-racist actions for a better world.

Read More 

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi Dr. Kendi’s distinction between “not racist” and “anti-racist” dives much deeper on this topic, with an emphasis on the necessity of taking action. 

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo  Chapter 5 on the Good/Bad Binary is especially relevant to this post. 

The White Man’s Guilt by James Baldwin  James Baldwin’s 1965 essay is deeply relevant in 2020.  

I lead professional learning and design curriculum to realize the vision that every kindergartener who enters public schools will graduate high-school prepared to thrive in a changing world.

3 Comments

  • Penny Hastings

    June 4, 2020, 7:07 am

    Thank you for sharing your personal history, recollections and renewal in considering your racial biases. Saying, “I am not a racist” lets us off the hook. Your words remind me that we need to reevaluate and recognize our biases through thoughtful introspection and taking actions to help our communities and nation make impactful changes.

  • Suzanne

    June 4, 2020, 8:55 am

    Thank you! Such good and hard words to think about! Maybe it’s the first step, to admit there is underlying, deep-seeded conditioning of our thoughts… Fear of creating a bad impression, or self image..

  • Allison Thomas

    June 10, 2020, 9:00 am

    This is wonderful Tonya and I share your pain and realizations as a descendant of Virginia enslavers back to 1640….who clung to their enslaved and that way of life until the end of the Civil War. I’m in Los Angeles so I can also relate to the California distancing.

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