A whiter shade of guilt

You can stop patting yourselves on the back, you well-meaning white MLK marchers. Texas State University professor Barbara Trepagnier wants to dig into your psyche and talk about the subtle ways you aid and abet racism without even realizing it. But don’t worry, she’s not a finger-pointer. The disarming sociologist was quick to tell the Current that her new book, Silent Racism, published this month by Paradigm, was inspired by a personal faux pas.

Right now, with everything going on with the Minutemen and the American Freedom Riders here in San Antonio, it seems like maybe an odd time to be looking at white liberals ...

`Laughs.` You know, even the election right now, the primaries, it’s sort of like, it’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

Tell me what you are talking about.

Well, what I’m talking about is a very subtle form of racism that we the people that are perpetuating it don’t even see. Now, I’m a white person, I’m a liberal, I’m well-meaning, and yet I know of times when I’ve said things that I later discovered were racist, and I didn’t know it at the time, I was totally unaware.

Can you give me an example?

Yes, I’ll give you the example from my own life. My students love to hear me confess. I was living in Santa Barbara California when the Rodney King verdict — it wasn’t his trial, but the white officers that beat up Rodney King, they were on trial and they were found not guilty of that beating ... Well I had a black acquaintance and we were in an organization together and I needed to call her about something unrelated to the Rodney King thing and to the riots that started after the verdict. But while we were on the phone, in my Southern way, I said, Oh, Raylene I’m so sorry about what’s going on in L.A. As if it had been a tragedy in her family but not mine. I was really being what I thought of as a sympathetic and nice person. Now she didn’t say anything, and very often people of color don’t interrupt the racism that comes at them. For one thing it’s very subtle and it’s often not intended.

I think you mention `in your book` that there’s a phenomenon of people who consider themselves not racist, but then will avoid socializing to some extent with people of color just because they’re afraid of coming across as racist.

Yeah, I did find that people who are really disconnected, but who are afraid that they might say something racist, really avoid talking about race, and this is one thing nationally that I can see: We’re scared to death to have a conversation about race. Do you remember Bill Bradley? He ran for president `in 2000`. Bill Bradley was a basketball player and he ended up in the United States Senate, he was a white guy, and his friends were black because he was a basketball player and it’s like almost everybody on the team was black except for him. And he got to know a lot of African-Americans really well, and when he was running in the primaries he used to say, “When was the last time you had a conversation about race with someone from a different race?” And almost all of us don’t do that.

We leave it to the comedians and the movies.

Right, the people that are more courageous than we are, and that’s why they have such an audience, I think.

If we take the notion of racism and distill it down to creating “the other” and separating — that’s your problem, that’s not my problem — do not all people practice racism at some level?

Yes, they do, but — this is so hard to explain because I’m a sociologist and sociologists get into this thing about power in society. It’s like because white people dominate most of the positions of power — not all of them, certainly, and this argument will not work at all after Obama may become our president — but so far positions of power, where decisions are made, those positions are held to a large extent by whites and not blacks, and so when the decisions are made and they’re based on faulty assumptions, that’s what we call racism. It’s a systemic phenomenon rather than an individual prejudice. So when we say something like, well, can’t anyone be racist? Sociologists like to say, well, anyone can hate another person, can be prejudiced, that’s an individual matter. But when you live in a society that itself produces negative effects for people of color and you’re part of that dominant group, then your prejudice, your ideas, mean more than somebody who’s in a subordinate group, and `the sociologists` have an idea it’s not going hurt white poeple as much.

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