Racism and walking-the-other-way


I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt.The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists.But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others

–Beverly Tatum

Can I let you in a little secret? I haven’t always been actively antiracist.

I spent most of my life, blissfully unaware that I was being carried along by the airport walkway that Tatum describes. I mean, I wasn’t like those white supremacists up ahead. And I had black friends! And I knew slavery was a bad thing but it’s over right? And I was only joking! 

In fact, I’m actually pretty new at this whole “walking-the-other-way” thing and I’m still trying to get my footing.

I think the turning point for me–the point where I realized how much prejudice was ingrained in my head that I wasn’t even aware of–was a few months ago. I made a joke about my Asian-American partner in which I stereotyped him and someone called me out.

And I got all defensive.

And then I thought, “What am I defending? My right to make a joke that hurts someone else?”

Suddenly I felt the walk-way moving under my feet and I began to realize that my “harmless” joke was a tiny cog in a machine that I was allowing to run.

A machine that turns people of color into objects and stereotypes and animals…never humans.

A machine that justifies rape and wars and unequal judicial treatment and forced sterilizations.

A machine that drills into our heads that those people are just like that. 

A machine that divides us. A machine that covers “others” with a blanket and tells us white folk not to bother to peek underneath.

Not to listen to their stories–just believe what the white men tell us on the news.

Not to see them as humans–just as characters on Saturday morning cartoons or karate movies or baseball mascots.

I realized I couldn’t contribute to that machine and still claim that I loved the Asian-American man that I was with. I realized I couldn’t say I loved him while contributing to a system that was dehumanizing him. I just couldn’t.

So I picked up my bags and started walking the other way.

I’d like to think I’ve made progress, but I also know that in my years as a passive racist, I’ve probably left some scars. I also know that I’m still on that moving walkway and there’s always a chance that I’ll slip and get carried along by racism yet again.

So, I’m asking for forgiveness, to people of color that I’ve hurt and to white people that I’ve hindered. I’m sorry.

And, I’m asking for accountability. Will you join me in walking-the-other-way? And will you help me?


9 thoughts on “Racism and walking-the-other-way

  1. This is one of my favorite quotes, I either read it first in Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria or in White Like Me – Both extremely good books to help on the path of knowledge on the issues we face as human beings. White Like Me changed my life – Tim Wise has some amazing insights from a white anti-racist perspective and the more I hear from him, through his writings and speaking engagements the more I am inspired to keep moving in that opposite direction. He also explains that we do not necessarily speak to change the minds of others (because it can be nearly impossible) but to encourage others who have not yet gained strength to speak as well. The war is going to be long, as we already know, but we have to be prepared with every battle won to continue to stand for what we believe because with every triumph will come stronger and louder opposition from the other end.

  2. Question… What exactly are you doing to walk the other way? Because I want to… but I guess I’m not seeing exactly how you are doing this, or practical ways that I can start doing this and join you.

    • Good question! I’m just doing little things right now–educating myself about the issues, not telling (or laughing at) racist jokes, speaking out against racism that I see, etc.

  3. Reblogged this on intheendlovewins and commented:
    To all my brothers and sisters, this is why talking about race matters.

  4. This is excellent. Thank you for saying so well what I have wanted to say for a long time and what I wish so badly that more people at my school would realize.
    This is why every comment of “Why do we have to talk about race?” perpetuates the very system of racism they claim to be opposed to.

    • Agreed! I get so frustrated when white people suggest that we shouldn’t talk about race…That might work if everyone were equal in society. Sadly that’s not the case yet, so we need to keep dragging these issues into the light!

  5. I own her book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity. I should read it.

    • Sound like a great book! I’ve read the chapter that this quote is from–it was in one of my Women’s Studies anthologies.

  6. Brilliant quote. Beautiful confession. Strong resolve.

    We must be willing to learn from our friends who are not white, right? I was a passive racist for so long and sometimes I wonder if I am not still that?

    What am I actively doing?

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