Racism, Denial and Shame
Image source: Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Professor Ibram X. Kendi really opened my thinking about racism and my own antiracism with his impressive, thorough and National-Book-Award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s long, and it’s worth every minute.)
Ever since I read the book last year, I’ve been following Dr. Kendi’s writing. He is a prolific thinker and an active commentator. When I saw that he wrote an op-ed in the NY Times regarding the recent news story that the president referred to Haiti and other predominantly black nations as “shitholes,” I decided to read the piece with my fellow travelers.
In the op-ed, "The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial," Kendi focuses on the public comments of Senator Dick Durbin after the news broke that Trump had referred to these nations as shitholes: “Mr. Durbin rightfully described Mr. Trump’s words as ‘hate-filled, vile and racist,’ and added, ‘I cannot believe that in the history of the White House in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.’”
Kendi points out that by positing Trump’s racism as somehow exceptional, “Durbin, a reliably liberal senator, showed the depth of denial of American racism.” To illustrate what he means, Kendi goes on to list racist actions and words emanating from the Oval Office in the past two centuries. This is not speculation. Kendi starts with the eight presidents who owned slaves and goes on to the records of conversations of presidents who used “hate-filled, vile and racist” language while in office.
Interestingly, Kendi calls out by name two presidents who have records for antiracist legislation: the Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln, and the man who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson.
I say it’s interesting because some of my fellow travelers found this difficult to stomach. “It’s not fair,” they said, to label Lincoln and Johnson as racists, given all the good they did.
And that reaction is precisely what Kendi is talking about when he points to the role of denial in the perpetuation of racism.
When I wrote about Kendi before, I noted that one of his reviewers had a similar reaction, writing, “The old one-drop rule for determining race was based on prejudice and pseudoscience. A one-drop rule for determining racism seems only slightly less unfair, no matter how well-intentioned.” I’m realizing now that this “its unfair!” reaction is a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is. Kendi says it elegantly (he really is a masterful writer):
“Denial is fueled by the stigma associated with being a racist. Feeding the stigma is how ‘racist’ is considered almost like an identity, a brand.
But a racist is not who a person is. A racist is what a person is, what a person is saying, what a person is doing.” (emphasis added)
This insistence that “racist” is not a who but a what is a hallmark of Kendi’s thinking. I find it compelling and challenging, and I find that it is a difficult concept for people to accept. The stigma is fully and deeply internalized. The last time I wrote about Kendi, I put it this way:
as a society, though we have all agreed that racism is bad, we actually don’t know what racism is. We think that it is malicious bigotry, like the KKK or skinheads. And we compare those violent behaviors with our own...
To help understand what is happening psychologically in the denial that cannot accept “a racist is not who a person is,” I present the work of an author who is near and dear to my heart. My sister, Emily Guy Birken, mainly writes in the financial realm. She is very interested in behavioral economics—the ways in which human psychology affects economic decision-making. She wrote a piece several years ago, 5 Common Logic Traps You May Be Falling For, about some of the pitfalls of logic to which we are prone. As a finance writer, her examples are mainly economic, but the logic traps she describes are at play in understandings of race and racism. Many, if not all of the five she writes about are relevant to us, but the one I want to draw your attention to is what Emily calls the “Process-Event Trap”:
“When you fall into this trap, you look at something that is an ongoing process as if it were a single event. This trap is very common with any kind of self-improvement plan, such as budgeting. People will often create their budget in one fell swoop, and congratulate themselves on being done with it. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that a budget needs to be a living document that you work on regularly. Otherwise, when your circumstances change (which they inevitably will), you will be financially unprepared.”
Kendi argues convincingly that even as it manifests in individuals, racist is a process, not an event. He is fighting a process-event conflation that is widespread. We have consumed and internalized the idea that racism, especially as it manifests in individuals, is more like an event: it is a singular identity, and one to be shunned.
In this context, Angela Davis’ famous quotation begins to take on a new nuance for me. Nearly 40 years ago, she said “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” As I work to internalize Kendi’s truth for myself that racist is a what, not a who, I see that if we are to be true to Davis and Kendi, we must treat antiracism as a deliberate practice.
Racism, at least in America, is an unconscious habit, and like all unwanted unconscious habits, it must be countered with ongoing, self-conscious, and deliberate choices. And like other deliberate practices (think healthy eating, exercise routines, managing money [thanks, Em!]), we should expect to need to spend time and attention on it, to need practice, and, sometimes to re-adjust after slip-ups.
Mistakes and bad choices will happen. In all deliberate practices, that reality can be disheartening to the practitioner (especially for folks prone to perfectionism, like me). Setbacks can force us back into the process-event trap. Think about the exercise routines, diets or budgets that have been abandoned because of the fear or the shame of messing it up. For instance, imagine a young woman who resolved to get fit, and worked out faithfully for 6 weeks, and then missed two workouts in a row. Shame tells her “fit” is a “who” not a “what,” and she’s just not cut out to be fit, and shouldn’t bother trying. Shame too often wins.
Shame is what drives the denial of racism to which Kendi points. It is behind the behaviors often called white fragility, on which I've written before. We cannot let shame continue to win. Brene Brown, a shame-researcher and author, taught me (and millions of others) through her life-changing writing that shame is a useless emotion. To illustrate what she means, she distinguishes between guilt, a useful emotion and shame, a useless one: Guilt tells us “I did bad.” Shame tells us “I am bad.”
Part of our adoption of the deliberate practice of antiracism must be to accept the inevitable mistakes as an opportunity to learn or to recommit. We must accept guilt but deny shame. How can we deny shame? Brown teaches that “shame cannot survive being spoken.” She advises her readers to dispel shame by talking through feelings of shame with a trusted friend or loved one.
I do not know if Kendi knows Brown’s research, and since he was writing an Op-ed, Kendi did not have the space here to really lay out his antidote to the denial that drives racism. However, I strongly believe the overlap in the Venn diagram of Brown and Kendi’s thought is larger than you might expect. The last line of Kendi’s op-ed points toward what I mean: “The antiracist lives by the opposite heartbeat, one that rarely and irregularly sounds in America — the heartbeat of confession.”