Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.
The article Ask the White Guy on ‘Is it Racism or Bigotry’ made me think and perhaps come up with a reason for so many of the “why can’t we just get over it” comments I have seen on your website. I think there is a perception that many use living with racism as a rationalization for cultural and morale distance and justify bigoted actions or discrimination. It is as though they believe the fallacious argument “in America only whites can be racist; therefore white Americans are all racists.” One of the great points you make clearly is that bad behavior is bad regardless of whether it is bigotry or racism.
You’re on to something. I think that the gut dislike of the definition of “racist” is due to people feeling that they’re not racist when the evidence is that our system has been racist (and still is to a degree). This dis-resonance is generated because most people don’t want to be a racist and don’t want to be associated with racists—and most people don’t want unearned privileges (which is a core byproduct of racism). The very definition of racism is offensive to most Americans because we want to believe that America is a meritocracy with the same opportunities for all, and although we’ve had our issues (and still do), we’re closer to that ideal than any other country. You can measure this with economics; our civil and human rights are what has created the greatest economy on earth. With all of our problems, we’ve still managed to create more inventions, liberate more people and have the longest living constitution in known history. If you heard Admiral Mullen speak about ending DADT, you saw the flame of our revolution still burning with incandescent clarity.
Most of us are proud of being an American. Pride in being a member of something is proportional to the “cost” of membership. It’s why we cherish our revolution and our veterans. It’s also why you see 80-year-old guys driving around with a globe and anchor sticker on their car (and 51-year-old guys driving around with USS New Jersey battleship license plates).
Bigotry has a lower psychological toll because it’s an individual act. You can do something bigoted one moment and correct yourself immediately. Racism is systemic, omnipresent and pervasive. Your Black counterpart in your office may not face any bigotry there, but the minute he stops at a department store, he knows it’s likely that he’ll be followed. My vice president of business development (who is a petite Black woman) was stopped in the parking lot of a local big-box mall in Clark, N.J. (a known racist town) and was surrounded by three cop cars. One cop asked her, “Is that your car?” (She drives a 740 BMW.) She said, “You already know whose car this is because you ran the plates; if you have a real problem, you need to step out of the car and do something about it.”
They backed off (if she had joined the Marines, Afghanistan would be as peaceful as Mayberry, but [ahem] not all white).
A byproduct of racism is white privilege. Most white people also have a visceral dislike for that concept too. I’ve accepted mine and learned that it can be a positive thing. I didn’t ask for it, but I have it. Now I use it to open doors for others for the greater good. Using white privilege that way makes you feel good, helps society—and doesn’t diminish your white privilege.