You may, like this frustrated Redditor, find yourself facing the unenviable task of trying to explain why racism is real to someone who just doesn’t get it.
“As of now I’m debating with someone about white privilege,” user RandomWriterGuy wrote in Reddit’s Racism channel on Thursday, “and this guy is spewing out all sorts of crap that makes me want to punch the computer screen.”
The question he posed was, “What’s [it] Like Debating With Someone About Racism?” It’s a tough question—when racism is as slippery is it is in American society, just convincing a skeptic that white privilege is a thing (it is) can be challenging.
Some Redditors told RandomWriterGuy to give up. “Don’t waste your breath,” one person wrote, adding, “they’re either ignorant by sheer force of will or too stupid to contemplate the idea of empathy. He or she is going to have to experience it personally to have a tangible grasp on it.”
Another user, amzetty (real name: Adrienne Zetty) who claims to work with the organization Dialogue on Race, said RandomWriterGuy should suggest some reading material, like Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay on white privilege, “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.” Zetty also offered an alternative solution: Change the conversation. Rather than discussing the existence of racist people, discuss the existence of racist institutions—and why in the face of institutional racism, racists don’t matter. Or, as Zetty writes, “fighting racism has to be institutionally focused, not on changing the hearts and minds of particular individuals. Fuck ’em if they want to stay a bigot.”
That’s a tough pill to swallow, and RandomWriterGuy wondered if it isn’t worth enlightening the ignorant. “But wouldn’t changing hearts and minds help?” he asked, adding, “I mean if the opinions match those of the policies of the institutions that there wouldn’t be much friction between the two.”
Zetty’s response: Yes and no. But mostly, no. It’s a convincing case.
The Redditor starts off by comparing smoking to racism—smoking didn’t go away because smokers changed their behavior, but because institutions (and shame) walked back the acceptability of smoking:
Think about smoking, and how pervasive it’s been historically. 50 years ago you’d find surgeons smoking in the operating room, and pregnant mothers encouraged to continue the habit throughout the pregnancy to avoid ‘problems with their nerves’. But now, within a generation or two, those things would be considered absurd. How did we, as a society accomplish that profound change? It certainly wasn’t by convincing every individual smoker to quit, rather, it was by making institutional changes (blanket prohibitions in certain areas, increasing taxes, etc.) first, and then as a result, people’s attitudes changed.
That case study shows that sea change doesn’t need to come from individuals, and that bigots should be free to remain bigots—as long as they keep their opinions to themselves:
Consider your garden variety bigot. What they believe, as an individual (usually) doesn’t matter – their personal attitude has no bearing on the lived experience of people of color (unless they wield institutional power). Rather than expending effort on changing the bigot’s heart and mind, which can be practically impossible in some cases, thanks to the power of cognitive dissonance and how deeply they tend to believe in the myth of meritocracy, taking the institutional approach will have a more immediate and direct impact on actually improving racial justice, with the added bonus of a cultural attitude shift that will come naturally afterwards.
Zetty adds, “I don’t mean to suggest that no person or institution should attempt consciousness-raising of individuals or groups of individuals, just that on a personal level, the bigger rewards for your effort will likely come from an institutional approach, or at least expending energy on those with institutional power.”
When focusing on the individuals, she adds, it’s better to be choosy, explaining: “there’s a big difference to me between getting your old drunken uncle at a family dinner to ‘get it’ (good luck!) versus accomplishing that with a police chief or school principal.”
Ultimately, per Zetty, it comes down to results over motive:
When looking at institutions, outcomes are far more important than intentions. Modern racism can and does exist without racists, because it’s built into our structures. There can be good, or neutral intentions at play, but if the outcomes of institutional policies have a negative impact on people and communities of color, does that matter?
It’s a good question, and something to keep in mind when we think about how change happens.
This post has been updated to add Adrienne Zetty’s name.