Why is anyone surprised that Bill Maher would use the phrase “house n----” without a second thought? An opinionated, empowered white man who has freely made racist and sexist comments should hardly surprise anyone who has been paying attention. And why, people like Larry King might ask, is everyone making such a fuss about it? Because, of course, we know Bill Maher’s not racist; he’s one of the good guys, right?
This whole conversation, carried out on the national stage and in the Twittersphere, points out one of the biggest impediments to truly defeating the system of white supremacy that is alive and well in this country: Bill Maher can’t be racist because racism is bad, and he isn’t bad so he can’t be racist.
This circular line of reasoning allows white people — from the most conservative Christian to the most rabid feminist — to avoid doing the work of “dismantling the master’s house,” as writer and activist Audre Lorde might put it. Work that includes facing our own privilege and unconscious (or conscious but unacknowledged) biases, and getting out of the way to make room for all voices.
It wasn’t until I was 17 years old that I learned what it felt like to be discriminated against for the color of my skin. When a good African-American friend invited me to go to the homecoming dance and I told my mother (white, as am I) she began to cry, saying, “I have nothing against him, he’s head and shoulders above your last boyfriend.” But her brother would be visiting from Biloxi that weekend, and what would he think?
I was more than a little shocked, having been raised by this same parent to believe that everyone is equal and should be treated the same. Then when I told my friend about it, guess what he said? “Yeah, my mom is really upset, too.” My reaction — I remember it as if it were yesterday, even though it was decades ago — was to be indignant. How could his mother complain about her son going out with a white girl?
Fast forward to today when, since the election, my work includes co-creating and delivering trainings on racial justice, inclusion, addressing bias and microaggressions. As we began delivering these trainings, a pattern immediately began to emerge. When the discussion is largely intellectual — definition and identification of unconscious bias, for instance — it goes smoothly. Participants see how bias shows up in everyday life, and we see blonde heads nod in agreement that we all must become aware of our unknowing complicity in creating unequal systems so we can change it.
There are a few things that invariably cause these conversations to become tense, conflicted. One is when we begin to talk about how bias actually plays out: in the form of microaggressions, or the continued practice of hiring mostly white men for leadership roles. Or in the training room itself, as white people take center stage with their guilt and tears and monopolizing the conversation. Dr. Robin DiAngelo coined a term to describe this phenomenon: white fragility. When we confront these behaviors, our next job is to manage the inevitable conflict.
This can lead to the second most challenging moment of this work: when a strong person of color speaks up, even if only to validate her experience that, yes, microaggressions are real and, yes, she lives with them every day. Or to express frustration with the denial or defensiveness present in the room. The challenge then is to validate what is often the minority (literally) lived experience, allow the conflict while maintaining an attitude of respect, and address it head-on without trying to simply play nice.
During these moments, I have seen white people cry, or leave the room, or just sit in silence. The more righteous show anger or offer comments such as, “I’ve been an activist longer than you’ve been alive; what do you know about all the work I’ve done on these issues?”
Seeing people repeatedly hit a wall of defensiveness and denial, and not knowing if they will ever move past it, is demoralizing to my co-worker and I. She is Chicana, a lifelong activist, and the two of us constantly work on our own partnership, to make sure we are modeling equity and trust and openness. We consistently ask ourselves: How can we facilitate people hitting this wall and not backing away, but continuing to stay in and fight?
My experience of feeling bias about me solely on the basis of my skin color informed much of my academic work, learning about oppression and institutionalized racism. Classes which taught me the intellectual side of the story, but did very little to address my own “isms.” That came much later when, living in Oakland, California, and attending a doctoral program in multicultural education, I was often one of the only white people in the room. In that world, I had the opportunity I wish on all white people who want to make a difference in the world: Live as an “only” for a bit. It won’t give all the answers, but it might crack the shell a little.
Because when the difficult moments arise, white people can choose how much they really want to go there. Bill Maher has already issued an apology; he can now move ahead and be seen in the eyes of many, if not all, as one of the good guys. Living with microaggressions, being invisible as who you really are, the collective pain of seeing a society’s indifferent reaction to continued unpunished murder and incarceration of people who look like you — these daily assaults can be avoided by people of privilege.
Critical work going on in Madison, WI, is demonstrating that prejudice is a habit, one that can be broken. The response must be an ongoing daily, hourly, minute by minute, cultivation of self-awareness to identify your own beliefs and assumptions; followed by daily, hourly, minute by minute creation of new thoughts and behaviors that reflect your awareness. Don’t just sit there and think about this stuff. Do something. Do it now and do it every day.
Michelle Pitot, EdD, is the Chief of Staff at the YWCA of Southern Arizona and an adjunct professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. She is a Tucson Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.