Changing Minds

Racism Is White America’s HIV

For white America, confronting its own racism is a lot like attitudes surrounding the virus that can lead to AIDS.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Witnessing the death of Eric Garner, at the hands of uniformed police in New York City, got me to thinking about racism in America. This African-American man was confronted by police for selling single, probably-untaxed, cigarettes on the street. When the man resisted, he was held in a chokehold—a practice deemed unlawful for over 20 years—which was horrifyingly caught on tape. The man was obese and carried no firearm, yet he was wrestled to the ground and held in the chokehold, despite his saying seven times, “I can’t breathe!” He was pronounced dead at the scene, and since then, his death has been ruled a homicide (meaning that his death was caused by the chokehold, rather than a number of other physical maladies which afflicted him, among them asthma and diabetes). I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not this man would have ever been stopped, were it not for his race.

We white Americans all-too-seldom reflect upon the issue of racism, because we don’t have to. We don’t have to think about it, because the system is set up to benefit us, at the expense of people of color, without our ever doing anything mean or unkind, so it is very easy never to even notice how life is for someone not in our majority.

Racism has often been referred to as a “cancer” on and in society. But that has never struck me as terribly apt or helpful, despite its obviously negative connotation. So I began wondering what a more helpful metaphor might be for racism and its on-going effect on many of our citizens. And for some reason, it occurred to me that many of the things we say about being infected with HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, are true of racism:

Many people who are infected don’t know it. Those infected by racism are largely oblivious to it. It operates behind the scenes and barely shows itself in the early stages. It can be an important part of who we are and how we operate without our knowledge. And because the system is set up to benefit us, we can easily believe that racism is something that other people get. Understanding our being white in a racist society is akin to getting a fish in an aquarium to understand the concept of water – it is simply the medium in which we swim, the reality that supports us and in which we thrive without so much as a passing thought.

It would never occur to me that I would be stopped for no reason by the police. Yet it is a reality that every parent of color prepares their children for: what to say and not say, what to do or not do, how to avoid an escalation of the situation even if you’ve done nothing wrong. It never occurs to me when I go shopping that I will be followed around the store by those paid to make sure I don’t shoplift, yet it is an everyday experience for many people of color. It would never occur to me that I would be given a higher interest rate on a loan or a higher price on a used car, simply because of the color of my skin. It happens to people of color all the time.

The only way to know if you’re unsuspectingly infected is to get tested. Testing is a voluntary and intentional act. It starts with realizing and admitting that I might be infected. It is painful to learn that we might be intentionally or unintentionally racist, and since we usually shy away from painful things, we avoid conversations and situations that might reveal the ugly truth. The “test” for racism is a lot less scientific than getting tested for HIV, and it involves having conversations with people of color (and other race-aware white people) about their experiences. It means listening to the words of people who have indeed experienced racism, and then believing that it is true for them—even if it is not true of our experience. And then it means searching our souls for ways in which we have colluded with a white-majority society in perpetuating such an unjust system.

Resistance to being tested comes from the fear of what changes may be in store if I’m “positive.” The scary thing about finding out if one has been infected is that if I have, then I will need to change some things about my life. If I open myself to understanding how I participate in and benefit from a racist society (even if I have no personal animosity at all toward people of color!), then I will undoubtedly have to decide if I’m going to resist the racism in myself and seek to dismantle it in the society.

Viral load can be reduced to undetectable levels, but it never goes away. And at least for now, it’s an incurable condition. Undoing racism in ourselves is a life-long process. We all acquire “default settings” in our growing up—that is, standard ways in which we tend to view the world and organize/understand our experiences. We can intentionally go in and change these default settings, but it takes our being intentional and vigilant—or else, the default setting reasserts itself, and without even thinking, becomes our standard operating procedure.

I am a recovering racist, and similar to a recovering alcoholic, who may not drink but who will always be an alcoholic, I must constantly monitor and manage my internal “settings” about race. That default setting in me was shaped in my childhood, spent in the segregated south, complete with separate drinking fountains and lunchrooms. As a six or seven-year-old, my mother yanked me out of a public pool when a black family got into the other end of the pool, drove me across town, and paid for the “protection” offered at a segregated pool and “private” club. The dual message was that black people were dirty and dangerous. Those kinds of experiences establish one’s “default settings,” and no matter how much or how often I intellectually try to talk myself out of them, from time to time, they still crop up. While lots of self-examination, listening to others, and believing the experiences of those on the receiving end of racism, can reduce my own racism to undetectable levels, still the disease lives on inside me, ready for an outbreak when my guard is down.

Our only defenses are courage and education. Loving one’s neighbor, espoused by Jesus and every other major world religion, turns out to be hard work. White people in America must have the courage to look unflinchingly at the ways we have benefitted from a racist society and lower our defenses enough to hear the truth being spoken to us. We must have these difficult and honest conversations. And if we are going to have to live with our past and current racism, then we must strive for undetectable levels of infection. Our nation’s future and soul depend on it.