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Crossposted at Of Means and Ends.

While it is crucial for us to condemn and lament egregious acts of racism, sexism and other -isms, and the tragic consequences that often result, it's always important to look inward at the more subtle ways that we contribute to and benefit from systems of privilege and power. To that end, an author named A. Gordon has a piece at The Root entitled "A White Woman Wants to Get Rid of Her Inner George Zimmerman":

The truth is, there is more that George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn and I have in common than makes me comfortable. Sure, I would never find myself in the same situation—I would never follow a young black man, I wouldn’t tell a carload of teenagers to turn down their music and I don’t own a gun. But just as Zimmerman relied on stereotypes of black men as dangerous, I also rely on stereotypes. I am kidding myself if I deny the fact that as a single white woman walking down an empty street at night, I wouldn’t think about crossing to the other side if I saw a black man in a hoodie coming toward me. And while I wouldn’t actually tell a carload of black teenagers to turn down their rap, I would probably roll my eyes and consciously or unconsciously make a generalization about “those kinds of kids.”
In short, George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn and I are all the products of a society that saturates us in implicit bias and trains us to rely on stereotypes—to fear, pity or dehumanize folks who are black or brown. The stereotypes of black men as dangerous or stupid impact my actions—albeit in nonlethal ways—just as they influenced the actions of Zimmerman and Dunn. By crossing a street when I see a black man at night, or rolling my eyes at a group of loud black teenagers, I also am dehumanizing someone simply because, given the color of their skin, that person fits into a certain stereotype.
When you grow up in a country with white supremacy ingrained in its past and present, it's impossible not to be affected. I grew up in one of the whitest states in the nation, with little to base my opinions on other than what was fed to me in the culture. We can all feel good celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., (my mom...I mean I...made a paper mache bust of him for my 5th grade project), but that kind of surface-level discussion, while better than nothing, doesn't do much to reckon with our own contributions to the system and the present day scourge of racism.

The author offers a couple of suggestions for combating biases that she recognizes "may seem frivolous," such as changing the culture you are consuming. I want to focus on the harder work of taking these aspects of ourselves head on. That work isn't easy, but it's critical. As a friend said when we were discussing the piece, "you have to go to places that scare you."

Ultimately, I don't think ridding ourselves of our inner George Zimmermans is a realistic goal in the world we live in. That all or nothing idea is part of what precludes an honest conversation. It's much better to look at how we recognize and mitigate those biases, and most important, work to undo the damage.

None of this is easy, so these suggestions may also seem simplistic, but they are a start, and sadly more than many privileged people are inclined to do.

Have the conversation. Even just with yourself. Clearly, the first step is recognizing and processing these feelings. I started to engage more deeply with these ideas in college, but I don't think I fully grasped them until I moved to the Bay Area and spent a lot of time with activists who were committed to this kind of self-examination. It's scary to admit, even to yourself, that you hold within you some of what you despise. But that honesty is critical for any progress.

Discussing this with others in a safe space can be illuminating. But even the internal dialogue is an important start. Whenever I find myself in situations like Gordon recounts, I make a point of recognizing what I'm doing and thinking about why. It's a small but important step.

Read. Watch. Listen. Learn. Sometimes outside stimulation is necessary to provide context and get the thought process going. These biases are embedded in our culture, and the other side of the coin that is privilege can be even harder to spot. I'm sure many people can cite Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack as an eye-opener to the white privilege we experience on a daily basis.

It's an oft-heard and valid complaint in activist circles that people of color shouldn't be responsible for teaching white people about racism. But white people can seek out the works of people of color to gain insight into both the ways people defy stereotypes and the devastating impacts those biases, and the institutional discrimination that has resulted from them, have on communities of color.

Experience. It's obvious yet true that you just need to interact with people to chip away at racism. This doesn't mean the tokenizing effort to have a "black friend," but to try to put yourself in situations you might not find yourself in otherwise. One of the many reasons I moved to Oakland is that I wanted to be in an area where I would have the opportunity to encounter people of different backgrounds and engage in a more meaningful way. Door-knocking in different neighborhoods around the Bay Area gave me a different perspective on stereotypes than I would get sitting in front of the TV in Maine. Given how segregated many cities are, just moving somewhere more diverse isn't necessarily going to give you meaningful interactions with people who are different from you. You have to create opportunities.

Work to undo the damage. It's important to go through the process of mitigating your own biases. But changing the way you perceive people and act on those biases isn't going to change the mass incarceration epidemic or enact fair immigration policy. No matter how much time and energy you have there is something you can do. Donate. Take action online. Make a phone call. Volunteer. There are a lot of fantastic organizations and movements that are attacking the ways racism has become embedded in our politics and policy, and they all could use our help.

This is a lifelong process that requires openness, patience, and forgiveness. It's not easy, and I'm not going to claim to be doing the most I possibly can or that I understand all the aspects of the problem. But we all need to put in the work in faith that it is meaningful and rewarding for us and society at large.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Please share them in the comments.

Originally posted to Of Means and Ends on Tue Feb 25, 2014 at 02:28 PM PST.

Also republished by White Privilege Working Group and Repeal or Amend the Second Amendment (RASA).

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Comment Preferences

  •  Real Injustice for Trayvon (5+ / 0-)

    Tomorrow mark the second anniversary of  Trayvon death, without a civil court filing tomorrow ,Zimmerman will walk scott free   http://timeanddate.com/...

  •  This is how I did it. (5+ / 0-)

    Growing up in a rural, all white area, I longed to get out and experience as many different things as possible.  I did the next best thing. I spent my free time reading books or watching films about different cultures.  By the time I was on my own, I felt comfortable mixing with people from other cultures, because I felt I had already knew something about them.

    Funny thing, now.  I work as a disability analyst.  All I know about a client is their age, gender, and disability.  Sometimes, a month into a particular case, I see a notation about their race or gender identity that throws me off, because I had a different mental picture. It forces me to admit to myself I still harbour many prejudices.      

    "The light which puts out our sight is darkness to us." Thoreau

    by NancyWH on Tue Feb 25, 2014 at 03:35:40 PM PST

  •  Good post (4+ / 0-)

    Unfortunate choice of title.
    A more engaging title would attract more readers.

    I added implicit bias and stereotypes to your tags.

    "The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” — William Arthur Ward

    by LilithGardener on Tue Feb 25, 2014 at 03:39:20 PM PST

  •  I dont know about other women but I get the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WakeUpNeo

    jitters when I walk down an otherwise empty street in a part of town I don't know, if there is/are a man/men of any color and particularly if they are young, and I have to walk past them.

    99% of the women come to no harm, but the one's who don't would consider the relativly quick and painless deaths of Treyvon or of Davis to be God Sends compared to what many women go through when they are snatched.

    Also too consider that when Randie complains about Bill Clinton's abuse of women.
    Randie and a pal
    grabbed a female friend,
    bound and
    gagged her,
    tried to get her high on drugs,
    put her in their car
    drove into the country
    took her to the edge of a creek or river
    forced her to her knees
    and made her pray to a false God.

    Most women who go into those kinds of situations don't come out alive, and when their bodies are found, if they are found, there is often evidence of brutal treatment over a prolonged period of time.

    When Obama complained about car doors being locked it was not because he is Black, it is because he is a man unknown to that female driver.

    There is good and sound provable reason for women to be afraid in lots of situations where men would be expected not to be afraid.

    •  While I will concede (0+ / 0-)

      that in some instances you could be right and there are women who would lock their car doors because they are fearful of all men, that is the great exception. White women have been bombarded their entire lives with stereotypes and propaganda about black men that is designed to to make them afraid of black men by setting a stereotype of crime and violence and sexual predation as being an inherent part of the being of black men.

      President Obama knows and understands this at a visceral level because he, like the rest of us who are black men, has been viewed through that lens for his entire life...

      Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

      by awesumtenor on Wed Feb 26, 2014 at 08:35:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  You can see this white fear of black men (0+ / 0-)

        so clearly in the Jordan Davis case. It's remarkable that so many people on the jury would look at the facts and think Dunn was acting legitimately in self defense. It's hard to imagine their feeling that way if Davis and his friends were white (or Dunn acting the way he did), or certainly not if Dunn were black and the kids were white.

        It's true that I will often feel nervous when I am walking alone around men of any race, I also can feel how the stereotype of black men posing a particular danger have been handed down and that I need to consciously debunk them.

  •  I thank you profoundly. (4+ / 0-)

    This is the real discussion about racism we need. I especially appreciate your recognition that there are people out there who have done and are doing this work right now for themselves.

    For my part, I find that a lot of prejudices result from conditioning.   Recognize that conditioning for what it is without blame.  You were never consulted on the culture you grew up with
    Then, replace the images and stereotypes with new ones.   Some of this is, as you say, about experiencing other cultures and other people.  Seek them out.  Read, think watch

    But finally, I find it useful to do two other internal exercises:

    1). When you see someone, really look at them.  Notice their faces, the texture of their clothes, the wrinkles in their hands.  Close attention forces us to see the person and not just the category our brain puts them in. You can do this walking down the street with strangers

    2) when you see people notice what associations pop into your mind (that's a good way to spot your conditioning. And then provide a new, clashing image.  When your brain tries to hold two conflicting emotions or opinions at once, your neural pathways that encode those associations are weakened, allowing your to form new positive associations for the kinds of people you meet

    Yes, I beleive combatting racism is really personal work and it is cognitive and neural   But that's just me.  But if you catch my eye in a crowd, I'll be making positive stories about you that run counter to whatever cultural associations I may have brought to it.

  •  Nobody wants to think they're evil (3+ / 0-)

    Which creates an emotional barrier to asking hard questions like "Where did I get that idea?" or "Why did I even consider the person's race at all?".

    Anyone considering a dog for personal safety should treat that decision as seriously as they would buying a gun.

    by Dogs are fuzzy on Tue Feb 25, 2014 at 07:32:35 PM PST

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