I have a collection of clippings I sometimes use in anti-racism workshops. In each one, someone has done something that most people would, without question, consider racist; for example, burning a cross on the lawn of the home of a mixed race couple, displaying Black-faced “ghosts” hanging from real nooses for Halloween or organizing separate Black and white high school graduation proms. In each case, the first thing the perpetrators say is, “I’m not racist.” When I use the clippings in workshops, I ask participants to work out each perpetrator’s understanding of racism. If they don’t see the things they have done, as reported in the news article, as racist, then how do they define racism? 

Many participants in my courses and workshops over the years have done the same thing, said something racist preceded or followed by: “I’m not racist” or “I’m not racist, but …” At that point, I try to get them to explore what it is, exactly, they are claiming not to be. What usually emerges is “I’m not a bad person” or “I’ve never intensionally hurt anyone.” Their definition doesn’t go beyond a completely “bad” person hating and intensionally harming someone of a different colour than themselves. No wonder we have trouble getting anywhere with conversations about racism. There are certainly people who hate and wish to harm others based on race, what I would call bigotry, but most people do not fit into this category and, if that is all they understand racism to be, can use it to write off their responsibility. 

This is why I believe that the first step in learning to be an ally—actually, the first step in ceasing to be an obstruction to progress against racism—is to grasp the concept of structural or systemic racism.  Once this light dawns, a person comes to understand that racism is a history-shaped system—political, economic, social—that we all participate in. Intension has nothing to do with it. Being “good” or “bad” has nothing to do with it. If you’re white, the system gives you benefits taken from everyone else, without asking you or telling you. Your only choice is to work to transform the system or perpetuate it, if not actively, as a bigot, then passively, by denying its existence or getting defensive whenever it comes up. It is no longer ever possible to say “I’m not racist.”