Commentary: We need to think differently about what racism is to stop it
Updated: Oct 10
I am a black female immigrant. And to the surprise of many, I was incredibly conservative for most of my life, and I also live in Santee, sometimes derided as “Klantee” for its history of Ku Klux Klan activity and racial violence.
I didn’t use to believe racism still existed in America, because I was very successful and was treated nicely by most people. When I heard stories of black people getting unjustly killed by the cops, I thought they must have heavily contributed to their deaths. When contradicting video evidence surfaced, I thought those cases were just flukes and had nothing to do with race or a system. One of my main rationales was that in my country of origin, Cameroon, we are almost 100% black and yet we discriminate against each other constantly.
Eventually, experience taught me that, although in Cameroon we discriminate based on other dimensions of diversity, America has had a deep history and culture of racism and anti-blackness. This has not been eradicated. In fact, this nation has never acknowledged and tried to deconstruct this socialization. Instead, we strive for color-blindness, sometimes genuinely believing that we are a post-racial society since we abolished slavery, passed the Civil Rights Act and elected a black president twice. But this approach just ensures that nothing fundamentally changes and racism and anti-blackness are perpetuated forever, getting covered up better, and decorated with decorum and niceness.
Following the recent racial incidents in Santee, involving individuals publicly wearing a KKK hood and swastikas, council member Rob MeNelis took offense that Santee was being characterized as a racist community. He asserted that Santee is “an incredibly great community” no “matter what your background is,” and noted his parents are both half Mexican.
McNelis’ perspective isn’t wrong because it is congruent with his experience. However, just like mine was, it is incomplete, and I hope many of us can be humble and compassionate enough to build bridges and continuously seek to expand our perspectives and grow.
Last week, before the national police brutality protests swept into San Diego County, more than 50 Santee residents and supporters organized a “Demonstrate love!” car rally.
On their vans and cars, they had huge signs that read kind phrases like “Santee loves everyone,” “No H8 Santee,” “Hate has no home in Santee,” and “Sprinkle kindess.”
All of these are heartwarming and appreciated and perhaps a good start, but as Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility” and a renowned white female educator on issues of racial and social justice, accurately articulates, “Being nice is not going to end racism.”
Sometimes, it appears some people are more invested in the reputation of being non-racist than in actually being non-racist and doing the hard work and transformation needed. While many well-intentioned people may practice interpersonal kindness and even interpersonal inclusion, we often unconsciously or consciously practice systemic and societal exclusion and oppression of entire groups.
It’s in our laws, our norms, and perceptions. It’s in how we fund public education and how we approve loans and grants. It’s in the unconscious biases that shape how we recruit and promote, where we spend our money, whom we perceive as threatening, whom we chose to give the benefit of the doubt, and whom we decide deserves an instant death sentence simply for perceptions of common infractions.
DiAngelo says niceness is not courageous. Sure, it’s better than not being nice, but justice and racial equity take strategic intentional anti-racist action, and it is a life-long process.
The city of Santee and the county of San Diego have taken some steps to address racial discrimination in our community. That’s great. But if diversity, inclusion and equity efforts are not well-funded, staffed and sustained, they won’t make much of an impact.
The recent string of racial incidents have served as a wake up call for many, and some are wondering what they can do to help. I suggest you start by deconstructing your own socialization, and not focus only on the overt racists who were comfortable publicly wearing a KKK hood or calmly kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes while he begged for his life. It’s not about feeling guilty or shame for a system or socialization you were born into. It’s about refusing to perpetuate it and taking responsibility to change it.
We need to think differently about what racism is. According to DiAngelo, we can’t get where we need to go from the current narrow mainstream paradigm that says only mean, intentionally malicious individuals could ever perpetuate or participate in racism. When you change your paradigm, it’s transformative and liberating — not only will your personal relationships change, but so will our institutions, because we will finally see what they do.
This is the paradigm shift that could stop racism.