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  • Writer's pictureHeather Chavin

Working on personal prejudice while acting on systemic racism

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

The truth about equality, COVID inequality and the definition of racism

In my latest articles, here and here, I’ve been amplifying Black voices. My focus has been on awakening to privilege and understand what NOT to do. After a few incidents in my home town this last weekend, however (see the end of the article), I feel the need to move on to action immediately, even if it’s imperfect action.

But first, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, the bias in healthcare during a pandemic, and a few more things to never say again.

This video will take you through riots, the n-word, and questions about black-on-black crime vs white-on-black crime.

The powerhouse for me is Acho’s metaphor for why, even when laws are changed, equality is not reached. It’s like being in a footrace. White privilege is a 200m head start. From inherited wealth to better job opportunities to living on the positive side of the wage gap, not only have white people been given a head start by inheritance, but we continue to take advantage of that head start by the privilege afforded to us in a biased system.

Comparing the efforts of a Black person in a white biased system to the efforts of a white person in a white-biased system is NOT apples to apples.

Hence, giving someone a hard time for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps when not everyone starts with boots.

I had read that COVID was impacting racial minorities at a higher rate. My first thought was population density and more Black people and people of color live in bigger cities. This article discusses further elements. Things like:

  • The wage gap between white people and non-white people means lower median incomes and less of a choice when it comes to working and not working.

  • If you don’t have your own car, you’re on public transportation and your exposure rate goes up.

  • Access to healthcare and the means to pay for it.

Economics influences these decisions. It’s not about the body itself, but the societal situation in which the body is embedded.”

Looking into the future, the article expresses concern about vaccine distribution based on historical patterns. Once there isn’t money to be made selling to wealthy populations, who will ensure that the vaccines make it to disadvantaged populations? Then the virus becomes linked to a non-affluent population, a group with less disposable income, poor or no health insurance, and less influence over policy, institutions, and laws. Historically, it means this group or these groups will continue to wrestle with the consequences.

Extrapolating that out further - if you’re more likely to be sick because you don’t have access to good healthcare, then you’re more likely to miss work. That makes you more likely to get fired and even if you keep your job, less likely to get decent raises and promotions.

It drives the point home that access to good healthcare is a social justice issue and part of institutionalized racism.

Keeping this article handy is why I feel like I can move on to action. I just need to keep checking myself for defensiveness and when I feel it - read the list. Where am I slipping up?

Hands down, my favorite takeaway is #2 about Reverse Racism. Leigh addresses complaints about others being racist against whites. I like it because it gives me a simple definition of racism.

“Racism = racial prejudice + systemic, institutional power.”

Yes, someone might be racist against a white person, but because the systemic, institutional power remains in support of the white person, it’s not the same experience. Context matters.

“There is a difference between being hurt and being oppressed.”

Also important is #20 “Teach Me or Help Me; I’m Stuck. I want to stop acting like a racist, so please tell me when I do something you think is racist.”

Sounds totally legitimate, only it’s not anyone else’s job to make me anti-racist. Leigh assures me that I will get stuck, frustrated, and impatient with myself. She encourages me to seek help from other white anti-racists and to go there first. As I build my ally skills, I may be able to make deeper connections with Black people and people of color who will offer me their reflections (I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of these folks in my life already, despite my lack of ally skills).

Finally, along with my theme of moving from learning to learning-while-acting is #23 “I have to do my personal work first.” If I only work on my own awareness and attitude, then I’m only working on half of the racism equation.

“Racism = racial prejudice + systemic, institutional power.”

If I stop at just working on my own racist conditioning, I will never step into the systemic and institutional arenas and racism will continue.

A Hometown Racist Weekend

“Beer near!”

At those words, I sped up through the uneven terrain despite the fact I’m not drinking right now.

I was on the trail that my drinking club with a running problem had set. It’s a play on the hares and hounds game. A couple of hares set the trail and we’re the pack of hounds trying to catch them. The trail wound through the neighborhoods, across a few fields and down multiple alleys and pedestrian paths of our neighboring city Springfield.

Our trails are always interspersed with rest stops for a beer. It slows the pack down so we don’t end up catching the hares.

At the end of every trail, we have what we call a “Circle.” We call each other out for good deeds and dumb ones and even some made-up ones. For all of them, we raise a glass in punishment and/or celebration. I leaned back against my partner Jim in the lawn chair and prepared myself for the silly entertainment. “So, anyone who talked to the cops, come on up!” Our leader “Barely” was running the circle. (We also have nicknames.)

In the past couple of days, our community has held marches in support of Black lives and related social change initiatives. The ones in Springfield have been getting heated, with the police creating barricades in full riot gear and not allowing marchers to march their entire route.

The cops were on high alert. The hares are Black and thankfully escaped notice as they just looked like a couple jogging. The rest of us straggling through the neighborhood at different paces were another story.

The group breathed a collective sigh as two white members stepped to the middle of the circle to regale us with their benign encounters. I wondered if our trail setters had been stopped if they would have made it to the circle or if we’d be collecting for their bail. It can be dangerous to be jogging while Black (Ahmaud Arbery).

Just when I thought we’d gotten away with a nice afternoon, one of our white female members, “Playa” (beach in Spanish) stepped to the circle to tell her story. She was jogging along just ahead of one of our newest members “Just Tim” who is half Mexican, half Scottish. A truck slowed down, rolled down its window to show a concerned couple. They said something to the effect of, “Miss, you might want to watch out for that guy behind you, he’s not from this neighborhood.”

Nevermind the white people behind Tim.

Nevermind that Playa isn’t from that neighborhood either.

Playa only had time to say, “Him? He’s with US!” They sped off before she could share that he’s going to school at the University of Oregon or that he is a wildland firefighter in the summers to help pay for school. They didn’t get to hear the stories I did carpooling him home about his trek through Mexico to learn about his father’s heritage and improve his Spanish speaking skills.

Nothing like this has ever happened before to our local group. Or should I say not out loud and to our faces? As Black people and allies raise their voices, so are explicitly racist people raising theirs.

As angry as I was about that incident, I came home to the news that one of our local leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement was run down by a car while he led a children’s march. Yes, a children’s march. As the car came around the round-about, he stepped in front of marchers to protect them. And the driver sped up according to witnesses. It is more important than ever for those of us who are coasting in the middle wake up and resoundingly take a side in the anti-racist camp. And to be an anti-racist, not only do white people have to stop being part of the problem, but we need to take action to become part of the solution.

Although I have so much more to learn to be an effective ally, the resources I will highlight in the coming weeks will be more and more heavily focused on action. I’ve already started taking steps in my business, a virtual coworking community. It’s time I start taking steps, even imperfect ones, in my physical community.

Tonight, I head to my first protest march.

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