You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught: Unlearning Apathy in a Racist World


Photo credit: Ed Everett

The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union last week stunned many, and pundits immediately began drawing parallels between the messages of isolationism and fear that fueled the Leave campaign and the hateful rhetoric that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has spewed throughout his own stunning political rise.

One of the most interesting parallels to me was the stark difference among voters by age.  U.K. voters under 24 voted overwhelmingly to remain in the E.U. (75 percent), and each subsequent age group inched closer into Leave territory, with those over 65 strongly in favor of separation from the E.U. (61 percent).  These results are strikingly similar to recent polls on attitudes about Trump by age group, with his strongest support among those over 65 (51 percent) and his weakest among those under 34 (23 percent).

This may paint a rosy picture of a more accepting, empathetic and open-minded future.  But it’s not all campfires and kumbaya.  Another very clear age distinction emerges when you consider “Brexit” voter turnout patterns.  More than 80 percent of people over 65 weighed in on the question of separation at the polls.  Among the youngest group of voters?  Only 36 percent cast ballots.

Isolationism and fear helped propel an unlikely proposition into a new reality, and it’s easy to cry racism.  But we also must acknowledge that apathy and privilege can twist isolationism and fear to much the same end.

It’s not enough to not be racist.  If you are a white person who wants to be an ally to people of color, one of the most important things you can do is unlearn your apathy.

It’s not enough to say, “I’m not personally racist, so I’m not contributing to the problem.”  That’s apathy and isolationism telling you that your inaction has no consequences.  That’s you not laughing at a family member’s joke about Muslims at your Fourth of July barbeque but doing nothing to stop it or the Islamophobic tirade that follows.  (PS: If this is your attitude, you are contributing to the problem.)

It’s not enough to say, “This doesn’t affect my day-to-day life, so it’s not my problem.”  That’s apathy and privilege allowing you to wall off entire races of people because you can, because you are comfortable, because you don’t have to fight to justify your value to the world in nearly everything you do, because you don’t hear your race disparaged and mocked by people vying for powerful political positions.  That’s you not educating yourself on the ways that systemic racism against African Americans have shaped our country and reckoning with your own position of privilege within that system.  (PS: This does affect your day-to-day life, and the fact that you might not be able to see that is evidence of privilege in and of itself.)

It’s not enough to say, “I don’t think I can make a difference,” or “I don’t know where to start.”  That’s apathy and fear convincing you that it’s too risky to put yourself out there as an ally.  There’s the risk of screwing up or saying the wrong thing now and then, of pissing off friends or family members who don’t agree with you, or of putting your heart into something and not seeing the progress you hope for.  All of those things are going to happen.  You’ll deal.  (PS: You can make a difference, but you also need to know that, as a white person, this isn’t about you and you shouldn’t set out expecting congratulations for caring about someone other than yourself.)

It’s not enough to not be racist.  For generations, many white people were carefully, but often clandestinely, taught that they were better than others.  In more recent generations, many of us have begun to unlearn those lessons, but our education has been incomplete.  We’ve been taught a story of equality that doesn’t match reality.  No one ever told us that to make that story true, we have to combat hatred with allyship and fight racism with active, assertive anti-racism work.  We have to unlearn our apathy and abandon the fairy tale that says everything’s going to work out just fine whether we do something about it or not.

I recognize that I’m being preachier than usual.  Normally, I use this forum to examine both sides of an issue.  But as I reflect on Brexit, I’m angry, and as I look ahead to November, I’m scared.

Why?  Because lives are at stake, and too many white people just don’t care.

When we do nothing to counteract racist political rhetoric, we are tacitly condoning those ideas.  When we ignore hateful speech in our communities and our social networks, we legitimize racist beliefs and embolden racists to act on those beliefs.  And when we tell ourselves there is nothing we can do to curb hate crimes against people of color, we forget that we could have stepped in before those ideas escalated from words to actions.

Already we’ve seen this escalation play out in exactly this way.  After Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country last year, assaults against Muslims rose dramatically.  A similar backlash against immigrants is now sweeping the U.K. as racists feel vindicated and emboldened.

Lives are at stake, and so is our future.  Right now, at a moment more polarizing than many of us have seen in our lifetimes, children and teenagers are looking to their parents, their aunts and uncles, their teachers and their neighbors.  They’re observing.  They’re absorbing.  They’re learning.  We are the ones determining what their lesson will be.

In the face of hatred, we can say nothing, or we can say, “Enough is enough.”  Whichever we choose will shape the generations that follow in our footsteps.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s