1/23/08 San Antonio Current 6
You can stop patting yourselves on the back, you
well-meaning white MLK marchers. Texas State University professor
Barbara Trepagnier wants to dig into your psyche and talk about the
subtle ways you aid and abet racism without even realizing it. But
don't worry, she's not a finger-pointer. The disarming sociologist
was quick to tell the Current that her new book, Silent Racism,
published this month by Paradigm, was inspired by a personal faux
Right now, with everything going on with the Minutemen and the
American Freedom Riders here In San Antonio, it seems like maybe an
odd time to be looking at white liberals...
[Laughs.] You know, even the election right now, the primaries, it's
sort of like, it's not exactly what I'm talking about.
Tell me what you are talking about.
Well, what I'm talking about is a very subtle form of racism that we
the people that are perpetuating it don't even see. Now, I'm a white
person, I'm a liberal, I'm well-meaning, and yet I know of times
when I've said things that I later discovered were racist, and I
didn't know it at the time, I was totally unaware.
Can you give me an example?
Yes, I'll give you the example from my own life. My students love to
hear me confess. I was living in Santa Barbara California when the
Rodney King verdict - it wasn't his trial, but the white officers
that beat up Rodney King, they were on trial and they were found not
guilty of that beating ... Well I had a black acquaintance and we
were in an organization together and I needed to call her about
something unrelated to the Rodney King thing and to the riots that
started after the verdict. But while we were on the phone, in my
Southern way, I said, Oh, Raylene I'm so sorry about what's going on
in L.A. As if it had been a tragedy in her family but not mine. I
was really being what I thought of as a sympathetic and nice person.
Now she didn't say anything, and very often people of color don't
interrupt the racism that comes at them. For one thing it's very
subtle and it's often not intended.
I think you mention [In your book] that there's a phenomenon of
people who consider themselves not racist, but then will avoid
socializing to some extent with people of color Just because they're
afraid of coming across as racist.
Yeah, I did find that people who are really disconnected, but who
are afraid that they might say something racist, really avoid
talking about race, and this is one thing nationally that I can see:
We're scared to death to have a conversation about race. Do you
remember Bill Bradley? He ran for president [in 2000]. Bill Bradley
was a basketball player and he ended up in the United States Senate,
he was a white guy, and his friends were black because he was a
basketball player and it's like almost everybody on the team was
black except for him. And he got to know a lot of African-Americans
really well, and when he was running in the primaries he used to
say, "When was the last time you had a conversation about race with
someone from a different race?" And almost all of us don't do that.
We leave it to the comedians and the movies.
Right, the people that are more courageous than we are, and that's
why they have such an audience, I think
If we take the notion of racism and distill it down to creating "the
other" and separating -that's your problem, that's not my problem-do
not all people practice racism at some level?
Yes, they do, but - this is so hard to explain because I'm a
sociologist and sociologists get into this thing about power in
society. It's like because white people dominate most of the
positions of power - not all of them, certainly, and this argument
will not work at all after Obama may become our president - but so
far positions of power, where decisions are made, those positions
are held to a large extent by whites and not blacks, and so when the
decisions are made and they're based on faulty assumptions, that's
what we call racism. It's a systemic phenomenon rather than an
individual prejudice. So when we say something like, well, can't
anyone be racist? Sociologists like to say, well, anyone can hate
another person, can be prejudiced, that's an individual matter. But
when you live in a society that itself produces negative effects for
people of color and you're part of that dominant group, then your
prejudice, your ideas, mean more than somebody who's in a
subordinate group, and [the sociologists] have an idea it's not
going hurt white poeple as much.