In which I’m a (recovering) racist

“So, are you reading any books by Native authors?”

A few days ago, my husband asked me this seemingly innocent question, and I froze in shock.

I had just been filling him in on a little bit of the controversy behind one of the books I’m reading. It’s a book in the Dear America series about a Lakota girl who is sent to a white boarding school, and it’s written by a white woman. I won’t say anymore, because I haven’t read the book yet and I don’t want to spoil anything. But suffice it to say that I was speculating that some of the controversy involves the fact that a white author was asked to write the book instead of a Native author, and she may have made some hurtful generalizations or misrepresentations in her book.

“So lame,” I vented. “They could have gotten any number of Indian authors to write this book and it would have been so much richer. But instead it’s just another instance where white people get to tell the story of Native people. Stupid.”

It was at this point that Daniel made his astute observation.

“Are you reading any books by Native authors for your project?”

The room was still. My wheels were frantically spinning, mentally scanning my reading list, hoping, praying, but alas —

“No, I guess not.”

“Well… isn’t that a little racist?”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, self-proclaimed social justice advocate and truth-in-history enthusiast, embarked on a four-month-long intensive project to learn the “Native side of the story” of American settlement… and I didn’t include a SINGLE book written by an Indigenous person.

Well, let me tell you, I think we can all (especially me) learn a few things from this:

  1. Everyone’s a little bit racist. …or a lot bit. But the point is we all make mistakes. And clearly I will be the first to admit that I do racist things, not to mention benefiting from lots of race-based privileges. (But that’s a whole nother blog post.) Anyway, with personal racism, the important thing is to…
  2. Confess, apologize, and move on. Being called racist is only a mortal insult if you take it personally. But you know — just like any other mistake and/or sin, if you own up and honestly feel sorry, you can ask for forgiveness. And that helps make everything better. Like this: Dear friends, I confess that I am a recovering racist, and I have allowed my white-centric blinders to interfere with my learning and to make my storytelling dishonest. Not only that, but then I pooh-poohed another author for doing the same thing. (I’m also a recovering snooty hypocrite.) Please forgive me. (And thanks to Daniel for being willing to call me a racist!)
  3. Then… make it right! As I mentioned in my last Little House / Wounded Knee installment, I’m adding a few new books to my project. I took this opportunity to do some digging and discovered a wonderful series by Louise Erdrich, an Ojibwa author and fellow Minnesotan, that follows the life of a young girl growing up in 19th-century North America… much like another series I’m reading… so I’ll be reading the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, for next week’s LH/WK. (I’ll also be reading two more in the series, as well as As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie.)

In conclusion — I hope we’ve all learned a lesson about the ubiquity (and addressability) of personal racism. So remember, kids, if I do something racist, please tell me! I’ll probably say thank you! =)

(And now, if you’re following a long with the LH/WK project, back to our regularly scheduled program…)

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3 thoughts on “In which I’m a (recovering) racist

  1. Interesting use of the word “racist.”  “I am a racist” and “I did something racist” are probably two different things.  For example, stealing is evil.  Someone who steals does something evil.  Someone who steals might, but might not, BE evil.  To assume that one action constitutes who a person is, is prejudice of the highest order, even when making that judgment about yourself, if you’re making it irrespective of the other facts in the case (been reading too much Sherlock Holmes lately, and couldn’t think of another way to say “facts in the case,” even though I know this isn’t a “case”).

    On the other hand, if you mean “racist” in the way that means, “I benefit from racial privilege,” then yes, you are racist.  If you mean it in the sense that “I am part of a culture that is racist, and I have internalized some of those beliefs, consciously or otherwise,” then yes, you are racist.  But, in most usage, to BE a racist means consciously to hold beliefs which privilege certain races over others.  I don’t think that is accurate of you.  I DO think that you did something racist.  I don’t think you ARE a racist.  We ALL do racist stuff all the time.  But does that make us racists?  I would say no.  Because, again, I would liken it to evil:  have I done evil things, and will I continue to?  Yes.  Does that make me evil?  No, I don’t think it does (although, technically, I am a Slytherin, so maybe…).

    Overall, it was definitely an oversight.  It was a racist oversight, in fact.  I just disagree with the title of your post.  But I really LIKED the post overall, so there’s still that!  I just would have called it “In which I do something racist.”

    I like grammatical/philosophical/semantic discussions.  So pardon this comment if it seems pointless.

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    1. davidlick  Well, as you probably know by now, I like grammatical/philosophical/semantic discussions too! So we can happily embark on a pointless discussion together and everyone else can be bored of us. =)
      I get your point about BEING racist vs. DOING something racist. I would say that I agree with the ideology underpinning your argument. I might even agree with your argument itself. I think the best summation of my actual thoughts about this issue are reflected in my “Confession” part — “I am a RECOVERING racist.” 
      I want to own the fact that racism is ugly and hurtful. So even though I get the different shade of meaning in “I did something racist,” I felt like that was a little too distancing and “hand-washing” sounding. I think the language of “recovering __________” (racist, hypocrite, etc) is the best because it explicitly acknowledges both the gravity of sin and the perpetual struggle to escape it. 
      In fact, I think I will add “recovering” to my post title. 
      This has been a very helpful thought exercise. Thank you!
      (Also, because I’ve been wanting to use it the whole time, PEDANTIC. The end.)

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      1. RebekahSchulzJackson davidlick  Yes, I like that better.  Now, we could get into a semantic discussion over whether or not the word “recovering” distances you more or less than the doing/being diad, but that’s irrelevant, I think.  I think the point is made well:  you did something racist.  You’re doing something about it.  Again, I would have been fine with indicating that in the language of “doing.”  But if you INSIST *wink wink* on doing it in the language of being, this is a good way to do it.  🙂

        I agree that racism is ugly and hurtful, and that the being/doing distinction can be a little distancing.  I wouldn’t argue that.  I guess my point was just that one action shouldn’t EVER be enough to label a person.  That’s what rubbed me the wrong way.  I don’t have any problem thinking of myself as a racist in the two definitions that I labeled in my second paragraph above.  In my reg’lar ol’ life, I’d like to think of myself as more of a “recovering racist,” who is still deeply scarred by the culture that I inhabit, and who often thinks in the racist ways dictated by my cultural narrative.  But I don’t like the “convenience” of labeling everyone who does something as a person who IS that thing.  And in your post, your concern over owning up to the ugliness of racism was your primary concern; in my post, a fear of dangerous labels and ideologies that support them was mine.  I don’t think we disagree at all, other than about priorities.  In fact, I specifically understood what you were getting at; that’s why I didn’t try to “soften the blow” by using a different word other than “racist,” nor to try to excuse your behavior in this particular instance (nor, by extension, mine in similar situations).  It was just a different ranking of the hierarchy of the issues, yours more focused on your personal journey (as is your privilege as the author of the blog); mine as someone who was coming from a more “detached” view of a person outside the immediate concern of this particular post.

        Thanks for the talk!  It’s been fun.  Now, if only there were some way for us to have a talk like this in person… OH WAIT!  THERE IS!!  SEE YOU SATURDAY!!!  YAYI’MEXCITED!!!!

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