Racism can be difficult to understand, especially if you’ve never experienced it. Racism has many forms — and continues to grow and shift over time. If you’ve never been on the receiving end of it, consider yourself lucky.
Racism can be overt — like hateful and hurtful words and deeds. It can also be subtle and feel like a thousand paper cuts over a lifetime. Regardless of how you experience it, racism is real.
In this cultural moment, bigotry and hatred are being called out — with protests and demands for change. As much as we have been here before — with protests and calls for change — right now feels different on so many levels. But racism still exists, even within the LGBT communities.
To help explain what racism feels like, SFGN spoke with Ghenete Wright and Brandon Wolf. Wright is an attorney, LGBT advocate, and a gay gender non-conforming woman of Jamaican descent. Wolf is a media relations manager with Equality Florida, and an advocate for LGBT rights and gun prevention.
Wolf defines racism as the system or structure of oppressing people based on their race or ethnic heritage.
Wolf uses this example — think of two people walking out of the same door. One is black, the other white.
“Only one of them faces scrutiny based on the color of his skin,” he explains. “Only one of them has women and men cross the street when they get close to them to avoid being near them out of fear that they’re dangerous. Only one of them gets three or four glances from the police if they’re driving a car that they don’t think they should own. Only one of those people walks into a store and has the security guard following them around simply based on their skin color.”
Wright says racism has many forms and levels.
“Whether they’re acting as individuals of power or institutions with power and having behaviors and policies and cultures that hurt Black people.” She acknowledges that other groups such as Asians and Latinos face racism too.
As Wolf explained, racism isn’t just a system of rules aimed at putting people down.
“Those subversive, racist pieces of our system have allowed White people to benefit without realizing they're benefiting from systemic racism. There are examples in our educational system. Erasing the genocide of native people, painting Rosa Parks as a little old lady who was just resting her feet, and representing Martin Luther King Jr. as a beloved figure of our history, without acknowledging the dark parts of our history, is a subversive function of systemic racism. And that has allowed White folks in our community to benefit from it without realizing they're benefiting.”
When defining racism, it’s paramount to remember that you can like a Black person, have a friendly relationship with Black co-workers, and appreciate Black culture, and still exhibit racist behavior. (Please take a minute to let that sink in.)
Wright agrees. “It’s not about whether you like or dislike Black people,” she explains. “That's prejudice or biases. Racism involves things that actually hurt us. Whether or not schools consider things like S.A.T. exam scores. Is that something that's culturally biased against Black people? Should they have different scores to be able to get into schools? Not getting into the school, you should have gotten into or not being able to buy a home in the neighborhood you want to live in, those are things that hurt us.”
Wright was 15-years-old when she moved to the United States from Jamaica. She’d always been an exceptional student. But in New York, she describes the educational system as a nightmare.
“The schools had low expectations of me,” she explained. “The students had low expectations of each other.” Wright’s mother had to intervene, so her daughter could move to her school’s honors program.
Instances like this are not rare.
Wolf’s early experiences with racism were more overt and personal.
“As a young person, I was called the N-word on the playground, nicknamed a monkey, and called an Oreo cookie. All of those things were overt racism. And I have experienced that my entire life. But I also think in subversive ways, we all experience racism.”
A June 2020 poll by Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project showed that 84% of African American respondents said Black people contend with discrimination a lot or a great deal. Fifty-six percent of white people agreed.
Allies and Racism: What You Can Do to Fight It
Knowing what racism is can help you identify it, describe it, and fight against it. This is a vital part of anti-racism. It’s the process of changing attitudes, practices, organizational structures, and policies.
Wright recommends implicit bias training.
“That's something that helps everybody understand the biases that they have, whether they're going to read something about it or take a course or training,” she said. “Everybody has some biases. We're not even aware. You have to address them. You also have to be aware of your privilege. It doesn't matter if you came from Mississippi or Manhattan, you're still going to get certain opportunities that Black folks are not going to get.”
It also starts by having a sensitivity about what Black and Brown people go through and making sure you don’t put the onus on them to educate you about racism.
“It is not then the obligation of Black and Brown folks to turn around and pump out resources and information to satisfy this need to check off a list to be anti-racist,” Wolf said. “It is incumbent upon White allies to be willing to do the difficult work of educating themselves on the way systemic racism shows up in our society and how they can begin to play a role in changing that.”
It’s important to consider that coming to grips with racism, and doing the work of an anti-racist can be challenging.
“It’s really important for White allies to be OK with discomfort,” Wolf said. “There is this sense in movements like this, especially ones around race where White allies rush past the discomfort part, rush past the painful part as a symptom of potentially White guilt or shame and get right to the ‘OK. How do I fix it?’ But by skipping past the hurt, the trauma, the pain of the discomfort of injustice, they're actually exercising White privilege in that moment, because Black and Brown people cannot escape the pain and discomfort of systemic racism. Don't rush to the next thing. Just sit with that and how uncomfortable it makes you feel that not only did that happen in this country, but you didn't know it. Think about the pain and discomfort that the Black community feels when they are forced to re-watch video after video after video of Black death for anyone to believe that injustice exists."
Once you are aware of implicit biases, Wright recommends the following actionable steps:
- Vote for Black Judges
- Hire Black People
- Promote Black People
While many other suggestions for ending racism center on criminal justice reform, others look at ways to level the economic playing field.
“Several groups have gotten reparations, and Black folks need to get reparations,” Wright said. “People need to be aware that we literally worked for free for centuries, and then we are the poorest people in the land. Jewish people got reparations. Japanese-Americans got reparations too. Don’t consider it something outlandish. Consider it something that's realistic and reasonable and should occur.”
The Optimism of the Moment
The conversations happening about racism are cause for optimism. But good feelings are not enough to move the needle.
“We have an opportunity in front of us,” Wolf said. “I would not yet say that we have created the change that we deserve. We've seen some movement. We've seen some law enforcement agencies being held to account. We've seen some shifting of funds away from militarizing police officers toward community programs that tackle the root causes of crime. We have seen some national dialog around ending qualified immunity for police officers who commit crimes. We have seen some conversations on those things. However, this moment remains an opportunity that has yet to be seized because we still do not have real substantive change that will result in a significant divergence from the kind of Black death that we see every single day. I think we have to keep our foot on the gas.”