I have a confession to make: I'm white. I have some Latino relatives on my mom's side, and my avatar is a black guy, but when people see me, they see a white guy, and that's really what matters most in today's world. In the past 48 hours, we've begun to have another one of those ephemeral national discussions about race thanks to Richard Sherman. A lot of elegant words will be written and a lot of despicable vitriol will be splashed on our twitter timelines. And then most of us white folks will forget and move on, like we always do. It's part of our white privilege: we only need to focus on race during moments like these, and then we can go back to the unbelievable luxury of not having it be a part of our daily lives.
Like a lot of other white guys, I've lauded some great articles written by virtual friends of mine, like Greg Howard and Tomas Rios. White people love to do that. It's conscience-cleansing and an easy way of distancing ourselves from the vile riffraff whose ugly words have been held up in almost pornographic fashion for everyone to gawk at and mock. It also distances us from our stiff cousins and grandparents who said that Sherman was classless, and those backwards rednecks who called him a thug (which we all now recognize as a barely-disguised code word), and anyone else who it's easy for upper middle class suburban educated liberal white folks to imagine when we proudly think of how progressive we are when it comes to all things racial. Except, the thing is, we're not.
Yes, it's good that we're not in the group of folks calling Richard Sherman a racial slur, whether directly or in some weird coded language that fools no one. But, to paraphrase Chris Rock in a famous routine I don't dare do more than paraphrase, you don't deserve a lot of credit for doing something you're supposed to do. And not arbitrarily villainizing a successful, assertive black man falls into the category of stuff we're actually supposed to do.
It is impossible to talk about race in this country without a chorus of white folks loudly proclaiming "I've never done anything racist in my life," or "I don't judge people on the basis of color" as if that absolves them of any responsibility for the benefits they continue to accrue in a fundamentally unfair world. But I'm not here to rehash that old chestnut. No, I'm here to talk to my fellow liberals. The ones who take the other side of that argument. The ones who recognize that every job interview, every seemingly innocuous encounter with law enforcement, every time a teacher called on us in class, the deck was fundamentally stacked in our favor relative to our peers. How many of you do something more than what you're supposed to do?
I'm in an interracial marriage. My closest friend in the world is black. I've always lived in ethnically diverse areas and identified more with other ethnicities than my own. And, yet, I'm constantly a passive participant in outright racism. I can't count the number of times I've been in a bar, at a ballgame, or just walking down the street and had a white stranger confide some racist comment in me, like we're part of the same club. It's varied from outright racial slurs after watching Floyd Mayweather dismantle Arturo Gatti, for example, to more insidious comments like "par for the course, huh?" when watching a black athlete enthusiastically and unreservedly celebrate his victory. My reaction, most times, is to avoid confrontation. To roll my eyes or, if the guy looks like he could kick my ass, to smile politely and change seats at the next convenient opportunity. It's almost never to challenge the statement. And part of me feels like that's okay, because it's not as if much of anything good will come of it anyway. But I'm complicit. I'm playing my part in a society that lets racism be its open little secret.
In a famous 1984 Saturday Night Live sketch, Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white person. In a series of increasingly comical encounters, he finds that white people are extraordinarily generous with one another when no black people are around. It's hysterical, but it's also not as far from the truth as we'd like to imagine it is. When I'm out with white friends, or by myself, it's downright common for white strangers to make comments in front of me that they would NEVER say in front of a person of color. It's not always overt racism, sometimes it's just … a little too close for comfort, sometimes it's that delightfully popular brand of comedy where white people say racist things – IRONICALLY! – to show that they're not really racist while still getting a laugh based on a racist conceit. But the point is that, whatever it is, it's something by a white speaker for a white audience only. Our collective guard is just a bit lower in that setting.
White people don't like to think they're racist. And the vast majority are surely not racist in the way that term was meant a generation ago. They don't support segregation or antimiscegination laws (although they're often happy to make somewhat dismissive jokes about white girls with an apparent preference for black guys). But the studies show that almost all of us – black, white, brown, whatever – carry some degree of implicit racial bias. Don't believe me? Go test yourself. You might be surprised at the results.
So, what the hell should we do, unwittingly racist liberal white brothers and sisters? I don't pretend to know. To some extent, there's nothing we can do. Every day we accept the benefits our skin color accords us, we're in some fashion contributing to an unjust society, but it's not like we're going to all retreat into the wilderness and form a new utopian colorblind community. We shouldn't – for the love of all things holy – become a circa 1990 MC Serch, showing up at the Apollo and asking if "the Original Man is in the house tonight." I can't tell anyone what he or she should do, or what the appropriate threshold is to be deemed "not racist." But we can start with one very simple thing. We can stop pretending that race in America is about the people who called Richard Sherman the n-word on twitter. We can stop pretending that retweeting our favorite black writers sets us apart from the "bad" white folks. Let's just own who we are. Imperfect people that are separated from those we so easily condemn by a matter of degrees, but not in absolutes. The next time you see some wretched racist tweet, don't laugh and think "what a loser," take a deep breath and say, "there, but for the grace of God, go I."