Written by Josh Bryan
I live in rural Northeast Georgia, and was raised in rural Upstate South Carolina. I grew up hearing the black kids called monkeys and the n word at the playground in elementary school. I’ve heard members of my family say derogatory things about other races, including these racial slurs. I was even told in third grade that I couldn’t have a black girlfriend because, “people just don’t like that.”
I could make an argument that systemic racism is the cause of a vehicle plowing through a group of protesters in VA, but I know too many people who claim that “racism doesn’t exist.” So please, friends and family, hear me. I’m going to set aside the argument for systemic racism for a minute and look at the four types of racism that I see every day living here in the south.
I see this as a pyramid with the smallest population at the top and the largest at the bottom.
The four levels of the pyramid:
Active Racism: Active racists truly believe that one race is superior to another and they are willing to make their race have a higher standing than another. An example would be Hitler in Nazi Germany. Or, a more topical example, these idiots in Charlottesville.
Quiet Racism: Quiet racists also truly believe that they are superior to others, but they’re just not willing to say that in public. This is the scariest group of people on this list. Here’s a personal example: I once needed some work done on my vehicle and I took it to a shop. When I went inside, I was greeted with a heavily used dartboard with Obama’s face on it, followed by a conversation with the owner in which I heard the n word several times. This guy is not ramming cars into people or at a neo nazi rally, but it’s easy to see how the people that are at these rallies are surrounded by folks like this guy. I’m a teacher, and on multiple occasions I’ve had students tell me about some of the things that their parents have said about people of other races. They justify police shootings followed by riots by explaining how “they are made that way” or have “genetics that make them criminals.” This is real, folks.
“Soft” Racism: Soft racism is when people make racist comments or have a racial thoughts that they don’t realize are racist. “Today I was on the road and I saw this black guy walking…” or, “I teach a lot of ‘urban’ students,” or, “I have black friends, so I can’t be racist” etc. This group also contains racial bias. Invisibilia did a fantastic podcast about a father who had adopted a black daughter, but still found himself being cautious around a black man walking down the street. Even though he had just explained to his daughter that it’s not fair that people do this, he still found himself being a part of the problem (from Invisibilia, “The Culture Inside”). Why is this?
Every single person I know would say that they are not racist. And, again, we’re setting aside systemic racism for this argument. But I would argue a lot of people I know are soft racists. This is where I sat most of my life, and still find myself here on occasion. It is important that we not fear the prejudices that we are taught as kids (“people won’t like it if you date a black girl”), but to make ourselves aware of when these thoughts happen and to war against it, just like the man in the story above.
Passive Racism: For the most part, people I know aren’t any other these other three groups. Most people I know (including myself) fall into passive racism: they don’t speak up when others are racist, intentionally or unintentionally. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve heard a racist joke or even an off color statement where I haven’t had the guts to say, “hey, that’s not okay.”
This passivism is the root of the problem. Most people know racism when they see it (when people on the passive level see people on the soft level or higher), but just don’t say or do anything about it. But, what if this majority became active? What if we all agreed to, kindly, inform others that we’re not going to let people around us say or do racist things? What if, instead of blaming the president, or Nazis, or the alt-right, we took responsibility for our actions and the people in our own lives?
We must begin to speak up because by being passive and letting racist jokes and statements slide, we are literally building the foundation on which the KKK, Neo Nazi, and White Supremacist’s groups are built at the top of the pyramid. It doesn’t matter if it makes you uncomfortable or if it hurts your relationships, people are literally dying because the masses aren’t speaking up for those without a voice.
It is also easy to just cut off our friends and family who are soft and quiet racists. But, it is our job to stand up when racist ideas are brought up. As white people, we have an audience with our families and white circles that the black community will never have. If we do not start to have these conversations at the lower levels of the pyramid, who will?
So yes, Charlottesville was my fault, and your fault, and the fault of anyone who is not standing up to racism in our daily lives. Please, please, don’t be defensive, but take a moment to attempt to see that silence really is compliance.
I’m making a stand today to no longer sit by and let these things happen. I hope you’ll consider standing with me.
Edited on 8/15/17 at 9:52pm EST to correct mistake. Originally credited Radiolab for the Invisibilia Podcast mentioned.