Long ago, I was taught not to pay attention to any one person exhibiting racist behaviors. “They’re powerless,” I was told. “Focus instead on the systems that oppress, those societal structures preventing people of color from achieving.” And that’s what I’ve done . For years, I’ve ignored the individuals as I examined and discussed structural and systemic racism.
Now, I’m changing my thinking… a bit.
Singly, people exhibiting racist behaviors and shouting racial epithets, do have power. They can take my life or that of someone I love because of the color of our skin. Just think of Derek Chauvin and the man in Michigan who shot at a Black teen who was lost and approached his door to ask for directions. They had power. Or think of those individuals who oversee systems, like local departments of education or land use and zoning commissions. Some have lethal impact, others the power to shape how systems operate. They all have the power to influence.
What is a young child learning when their grandfather uses racist terms or racist tropes when talking about people of color? What are teens and even younger children learning about basic acceptance, or broader celebration, of people who look different from them when they hear messages of racial hatred or racially charged jokes at the neighborhood barbecue or at the softball game? What are they learning about whom to fear and who to trust, who is smart and who is lazy? What stereotypes are being reinforced? What values are being shaped? I’m talking about what is often referred to as observational learning or role modeling. The words and behaviors of adults have a powerful impact on the children and young people in their lives.
Our families, neighbors, teachers, and the many adults who form our community’s fabric shape who we are. They do so by what they do and say… and what they don’t do or don’t say. What situations are not discussed around your kitchen table? As the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolded on televisions and in newspapers, did your teenage children — who were bound to hear something about it — know what you felt about the incident and about the verdict? Do they know what you think as an increasing number of Asian Americans are assaulted? Incidents that happen in the light of day. Watched with inaction, or perhaps helplessness, or even guilt.
Racist ideas are seeded by the adults in young peoples’ lives, by those who believe in a racial hierarchy that places white people at the top of humanity. Those adults nurture and develop the notions, the seeds that they plant. Sadly, the sin of omission also shapes values by what isn’t said or done by adults who claim they are liberal, unbiased, non-racists. Ibram Kendi has prompted my thinking in so many ways, particularly by proclaiming if you aren’t working against racism, you are a part of the problem. You are a racist.
A single person can be the spark that ignites the flame of racial injustice or lights the way for others to fight for change. Each of us decides what imprint we’re going to leave in the world.
I can no longer minimize the power of racist individuals.