Politics, Systemic Racism

The Language Of Unaware Racists

Things I’ve heard white people say and I myself have said without being aware of the underlying racism:

“80% of that school district qualifies for free lunches. That means the school won’t have a lot of parental support. I don’t want to buy a house in that district.”

“The crime in that neighborhood is really bad.”

“That’s near the housing projects.”

“They re-drew our school district lines to include the neighborhoods full of poverty and crime. So we’re switching schools.”


“The ghetto.”

If we really want to dismantle the systemic racism and the white privilege around us, we need to really dig deep into our language and the language of our friends and family. Because – truthfully – it’s not the confederate-flag-waving, Nazi-armband-wearing, marching white supremacists that cement us into this oppressive system of racism. No, its the people who don’t even realize they’re racist. People who don’t realize they’re benefitting from a racist system. People who don’t (or won’t) acknowledge their privilege.

This was me before George Zimmerman went free for murdering Trayvon Martin. The night I sat in dark in the bed scrolling through reactions from “Black Twitter” who were NOT AT ALL SURPRISED and I asked myself, Wait. If they’re not shocked – but I can’t see straight because I’m so appalled – what am I missing?

Everything. Because I was a racist benefitting from a racist system.

And I’m not perfect, but I’m at least aware of my racist language and tendencies of the past and my eyes are open so I can have a more clear understanding of the reality of the oppressive systems I benefit from.

We trick ourselves by talking about poverty and crime. Because those words do not denote race.

Except that they do.

Those are our safe words. We can use poverty and crime to discuss race and not even be aware of how were perpetuating the system and the stereotypes that benefit our white skin.

So we all need to step back and look at poverty and crime as very distinct racial constructs. And we need to educate ourselves of how our systems that create poverty and criminals are stacked against minorities. This all requires educating ourselves so we can look at our language that seems “innocent” and realize how wrong it is and how it supports these racist systems that we benefit from.

  • Did you know that many states allowed specific legal ordinances or legally supported covenants that could specifically prohibit the sale or lease of homes or property to black men? This was LEGAL until the Civil Rights Act in 1968. That means that you had black men who came back from fighting in World War II who couldn’t buy homes because of the color of their skin.
  • Did you know that there are men and women in jail today for minor infractions because they couldn’t pay fines or court fees? Did you know that we jail more people for minor drug violations than violent crimes? Did you know that we convict and jail a higher percentage of black men for these drug violations than the white men even when comparing across poverty and age? Did you know that we have a “school to prison” pipeline where we punish disruptors in schools by kicking them out which basically leaves them in the streets where they turn to crime?
  • Did you know that we have huge disparities in our education systems just because we fund with property taxes? And what do you think happens if your education is not up to par? You get left behind. And obviously this affects our minority children much more than our white children.
  • Have you ever thought about generational poverty? If the worst thing happened, do you have family who could help you? What if you didn’t? What if no one in your family had the finances or the means to help you? Not even lend you a couch to sleep on because they lived in the housing projects with 5 people in a 1-bedroom apartment? Then what would you do?

I’ve tried my best to compile a list of things I’ve read or watched or listened to that opened my eyes to a lot of these points above. But truthfully? Follow any of these links below and you’ll find yourself in a rabbit hole of education you’ll be ashamed you didn’t know. That’s how I felt. We need to think about our language. Our systems. And we need to point it out to our family and friends when they use the same secret “safe” language and explain to them how racist systems built the ghettos and filled our jails.


  1. PovertyListen to this 5-part series that goes through the poverty myths we tend to use to justify the scorn we have to people benefiting from government assistance.
  2. Why America’s School Have A Money Problem – The disparity in our schools affects minority children at a much higher rate.
  3. Jailed for FinesWatch John Oliver’s piece about municipal violations.
  4. Segregation Now – This Pro-Publica’s in-depth reporting on segregation in our country.
  5. Fair Housing – Part of that Pro-Publica piece highlights Nikole Hannah-Jones who I first discovered on this podcast where she introduced me to the history of our “fair housing” legislation and how we prevented black men from buying homes in white neighbhorhoods – starting the lines of generational poverty that still plague minority families today.
  6. Achievement Gap – One more plug for Nikole Hannah-Jones is reporting she did on integration in shrinking the achievement gap.
  7. Crime – Watch The 13th and read The New Jim Crow and see how we have a criminal justice system that favors white people.

Please add ANY other input or resources in the comments. There are tons more I know but I’m running out of time and I haven’t put on my deodorant yet.

(Leave it to Zoot to still incorporate sweat into a blog entry as serious as this one.)

2 thoughts on “The Language Of Unaware Racists”

  1. I would like to add something I found to be true for me – and you are welcome to delete this if it isn’t appropriate to share it here – I found when I first started learning about racism I was uncomfortable. I wanted to say, “But, but, I’m not like that. I don’t think that way.” In fact, there are still times I feel that way.

    What I have learned is that I need to sit with that discomfort. Let my brain play that “but not me” bullshit and then move on to LISTENING more. Feeling that way is a way for you to opt out of guilt and responsibility. It does nothing to help the situation. It does nothing to help you learn more. So I take a moment, acknowledge the feelings and then suck it up and listen.

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