The myth of “unintentional” or “implicit” racism
By Hari Ziyad
September 13, 2017
There were no windows in the high school classroom, only unnatural lights that left your head pounding by the time the hour was over. But on this day and many others like it, my head would be left even more tense and excruciating by a fellow student whose pale skin seemed to welcome the sunless prison cell of a science lab.
“Princeton?” my classmate asked, incredulous, when I told him my older brother was heading to the Ivy League university. “Well, they dedicate a certain number of spaces to Black students.” And just like that, he turned around, back to dissecting his pig or whatever else we were tasked with that day in advanced biology, having just as quickly reassured himself of his superiority as my announcement had seemingly and dangerously put that superiority up for question.
Despite my brother’s “academic achievements” (which are always more of an indication of who has value in white society than who is intelligent anyway), the equilibrium of anti-Blackness found a way to be maintained.
Some might call what I’d experienced a “micro-aggression,” defined by Psychology Today as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (emphasis mine), or any number of the other minimizing terms for the white violence of my classmate’s actions that are popular nowadays. He certainly didn’t mean to say that all Black people are stupid. But he did mean to reinforce a world in which Black people’s intelligence was never understood to match his. And that is the only intentionality that matters.
There is no such thing as “unintentional” or “implicit” racism, because racism is always for the sole purpose of sustaining the power of whiteness. Therefore, it is always purposeful. Though the desires of whiteness are informed by a “libidinal economy,” it is an economy in which white power structured by anti-Blackness is the intentionally sought out payoff.
Jared Sexton describes this libidinal economy as the “fantasies of murderous hatred and unlimited destruction, of sexual consumption and social availability that animate the realization of [the violence of power].” Those fantasies may very well be tied to an unconsciousness, but they are always also tied to a realization of power that is inherently conscious.
Saying a white person is unintentionally racist is like saying I unintentionally overlooked cars because I went out shopping for a house. Sure, if everyone tells me I need a house, and that houses are valued more than cars are, I’m bound to develop some biases toward houses. But seeking out the house is still based upon an active pursuit of those desires. Whether I explicitly deprioritize cars or not doesn’t take away from the purposeful way I go about prioritizing my desire for a house.
Because racism—and more particularly anti-Blackness—is a system of oppression that all white people benefit from and participate in, it is frightening to accept that such a large demographic would actively and consciously partake in what we know to be the most genocidal, violent force in all of history. This fear is the motivation behind the dissonance of defending Monroe Bergdorf, the Black trans model who was dropped from a L’Oréalcampaign right after being hired following her Facebook status stating “all white people” were racist, for example, while also claiming that much of white people’s racism is “unintentional” or “implicit.” This defeats the purpose.
If white people’s racism is only or even mostly unintentional or implicit, then we are always tasked with spending all of our energy to force them to “unlearn” what they do not know they know, putting our mangled bodies and plundered lives on display again and again to get them to try and understand. Doing so disregards the fact that such violence is exactly what they brought us here in shackles five centuries ago to enact, and what they are still enacting to this day.
Even if such displays were useful in getting some white people to “unlearn” “implicit” violence, one cannot ignore the libidinal desires the body cameras, the news loops, the Facebook “draggings” fulfill for all of them.
My stance on whiteness and anti-Blackness is because I have faith in white peoples’ intelligence, and I know that they can comprehend the most basic of images and storylines. I have faith that they saw the very same 14-year-old Emmett Till and the very same 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones when they were murdered, before cheering for their murderers to go free. I have faith that they heard Donald Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” and Hillary Clinton’s “super-predators” and put them on the only two tickets we could choose between anyway.
I have faith, so I know that evil is real. I know that some of us commit evil even if we don’t want to be evil. And I also know that reassuring folks that they can commit evil without being evil doesn’t help them not to commit it, especially when committing it helps structure their lives and gives them power.
Just like windowless classroom we were in, my schoolmate wanted the whole school and education system to be built with his body in mind, and they were. The whole world is an anti-Black, windowless cell, pounding our heads while we cut up the carcasses of those whose bodies were given to science without their consent. But there is a door, and there is sunlight outside.
My classmate chose to stay back after the bell rang, hoping for extra credit. When you know the space carved out for you at places like Princeton are never threatened by the space “dedicated” to Black students, that’s what you always choose to do.
This post is in partnership with BlackYouthProject.