Racism and individuals

When difficult conversations make an appearance, the response of many well-meaning White persons is to react with feelings of hurt irritability. The response often says: “I’m a nice person, I am kind to all people. I don’t
intend any harm to people of color, and I can’t help liking the people I like, marrying the people I like, socializing with the people I like. Therefore, my actions as an individual should, out of courtesy, be spared such critical scrutiny.” 

This response speaks at cross-purposes to critical scrutiny because racism is systemic. Racism is not a conflict between individuals. But when people of color and white allies point this out, nice White people say, “D-uh, then it’s not my fault anyway.”


The problem with scrutinizing systemic racism in an intensely individualistic cultural setting is that most people lack the tools for macro scrutiny of such issues. This is why narratives of colonialism, slavery, and racism are all silenced with a shrug and Well, I didn’t do it, and you didn’t get dragged here in chains, and it was a long time ago, so can we get over it now? Nice White individuals feel that their basic decency should emancipate them from the unpleasant kitchen-sink talk of racism and inequality. If it’s not their “fault” as individuals, they shouldn’t as individuals be asked to engage with the issues.

But a person’s niceness doesn’t make systemic racism go away. It may give you moral authority over a vast mass of nasty White people, and it may give you the cosmopolitan power of I’m different: I have Black, White, Hispanic, Muslim, Asian, gay friends. But it does little vis-à-vis systemic inequality and racism. It also does nothing to change the fact that you are complicit in systemic racism, that you, your children, and your closest friends benefit directly from being White, from the many privileges of being White right now, not a long time ago.

It may seem un-classy, in a Dowager Countess sort of way, to talk about a nice individual’s participation – albeit unwitting – in systemic racism. But perhaps the problem is not with the scrutiny but with Whites’ narrow, individualistic notions of niceness. If my niceness is unable to stretch enough to put me as an individual in slight discomfort, then my niceness is a starched, out-dated, egocentric niceness. If every conversation must conclude with me “feeling good about myself” then my niceness is ultimately self-serving. If you cannot bear to have difficult conversations (or watch difficult movies), then you may wish to recognize how you are fully complicit in systemic racism to the extent that you will lose neither an ounce of privilege in college admissions, job prospects, and social belonging, nor will you withdraw from your place of superior and cushy benevolence in social interactions.


3 thoughts on “Racism and individuals”

  1. Great post Shabana! This is exactly what we are grappling with in our faculty development institute about race/power/priv (and honestly grappling, ie: some participants are resisting the idea that they *need* —or should be willing–to be uncomfortable, and argue that discomfort won’t help them “learn” anything new). I remember watching a teacher (in grad school)walk around a conference table repeating the question: “How do you sleep at night” to a small group of law students enrolled in a federal-Indian law class. This is hard stuff to navigate (the far-reaching impact of historic and contemporary colonial power)…and discomfort seems to me to be a necessary part of really engaging in these conversations. Love to you dear friend…xoxo tess

  2. Thank you, Twenny, for sharing that. Yes, and there are some people who are an inspiration to me and to others in this quest – you are two of them – Twenny and Tess, two of the few who are willing to swallow the discomfort for what is true and strong. You have only one problem: living too dang far away.

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