Circumstantial Racist

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.


 I fled the scene of my first teaching job in Baltimore City, accused of being a racist by the principal.

Those of you who know me now may find this surprising.


Global Citizenship teacher?
Muslim student association sponsor?
Diversity conference planner?
Multi-cultural education trainer?
Restorative Justice facilitator?


For you who know this intercultural work that I’m always deep in the thick of, you may see this accusation of racism as proof that no matter what a white person does in contexts of color, they will almost inevitably be accused of racism.

But for others…particularly people of color, you will likely be asking a different question:

Well….were you? Racist?

My answer may surprise you.

How could I not be?

Born in the Ozark foothills, raised in a transition zone between rural and suburban, liberal arts educated in Garrison Keillor country in the upper-Midwest, the first time I lived in an area that was not disproportionately white was when I moved to Baltimore after college.

In my first teaching position I worked across the street from central booking, caddy corner to a cemetery, surrounded by infamous drug corners captured by The Wire, and cast in the very real flashing blue lights of police cameras.

Now how in is any 23 year old white girl supposed to make sense of all that? How likely is it that most 23 year olds regardless of color can have the historical, political, social, economic, spiritual perspective to understand the causes and consequences of such a stark human reality?

So…was it true? Was I racist?

Of course I was.

But not on purpose.

I was not raised in a context of deliberate and cultivated bigotry. I was raised in a compassionate Christian household where, above all, my mom insisted our faith was rooted in caring for the most vulnerable in our community. She was a champion for children. She hated bullies and would confront them in schools, church suppers, and super-market aisles. Despite the socially conservative constraints of the Bible Belt, she was bold enough in 1988 to reject the callousness of trickle down solutions and vote for Dukakis.

Her 8 year old staunchly republican daughter was appalled.

Her 36 year old progressive daughter couldn’t be more grateful.

No, my racism was not by personal design. It was by systemic proximity (or more precisely a lack there of) from neighbors who’s narratives could disrupt the mass media education I was getting from Law and Order and the nightly news.

Structural racism does not just keep people of color out. It keeps people of the pale in.

We move through an insulated existence where there IS such a thing as normal. Where there ARE absolute answers. Where you CAN trust authority.

And then at some point we come to the edge of our enclave. With our gaze off in the distance on our endless horizons, we step off the curb we didn’t expect into a pothole we didn’t see, twist our ankle, and collapse in the middle of oncoming traffic.

You want to know why white girls are always crying?

We weren’t raised not to.

And now we (overly) protected lily-white children have wandered into a world full of struggle our communities gated us from seeing.

3 years ago I took a group of public high school students on a study abroad trip to rural England. It was a group that reflected the diversity of their school and country from skin tone to head-covering.

During the day, they visited schools in pastoral settings. At night we would cook together in the kitchen where we would process the discoveries of the day. Many of their conversations with their British peers circled around race and culture.

When Miles told yet another story about yet another English kid comparing him to yet another black celebrity he looked nothing like, he laughed and said…

“You have NO idea how racist you sound.”

As we washed dishes together I asked. “Why do you think it feels so different to you to talk about race here? Why doesn’t their ignorance offend in the same way it would back home?”

After a few jokes about all the things that sound better with a British accent, Chloe was quick to put her finger on the difference.

“If you don’t know about race in America, you just haven’t been paying attention.”

These kids in North Yorkshire growing up amidst sheep farms, they were nestled snug in their culture. Where would they have ever had a chance to make friends with a black kid who could call them a racist?

I could identify. I grew up around sheep with Midwestern drawls. None of them black.

But unlike my planned community of the past or the physical spaces of the present, the virtual spaces most of us occupy today are NOT gated in the same way. There’s no way to not pay attention…unless you’re averting your eyes.

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

Don’t flee the scene. We must bear witness. And then we must decide whether to aid and abet or become first responders.

Despite the risks.

The wounds are deep. So is the fear.

Apply pressure.




I love the word systemic.

I remember when I began to apply it broadly, around the same time I was having my “social justice” immersion experience with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Systemic injustice, prejudice, inequality. It projected this internal struggle against these ills outward, acknowledging that even if we are able to somehow uproot them in ourselves personally, they remain in the world “systemically”.

I think most reflective people must go through a period of estrangement with the overlapping and often conflicting systems that govern our behaviors in both local and global communities. At some point we become aware that though we think we are acting individually, we are still subject to these powerful currents that we can only marginally effect with our modest dog paddle.

Greek Jesus Photo Bombing...
Greek Jesus Photo Bombing…

The systems we distrust may be governmental, religious, educational, cultural, familial. And the period we enter or remain in this ocean of distrust varies greatly. Some people find their cynicism and social critique early. Some people wait until mid-life. Some people pass through it quickly, others get stuck, immobilized or thrashing against these powerful vortexes that organize human behavior.

In grad school I read some “pivotal” work about the Cuban Missile Crisis and varying theories about its escalation and de-escalation. The one thing that remained with me was the introduction of a systemic conflict theory. It was all about how systems themselves behave. How though these systems are originally built by the individuals within them, at some point, “God in the Machine” takes over and the Standard Operating Procedures that have been put in place may begin to work against the individuals that created it. In other words, the system becomes more interested in self-preservation than preservation of all the selves that make up the whole.

I think of it like cells in a body. Any deviation from the expected/accepted behavior and the white blood cells perceive the cell as a threat to the organism. Understandable. Estranged or mutated cells and souls can begin to erode systems, undercut them, attack them. Sometimes the systems have set themselves up for this rebellion. They have become unresponsive to those within for too long. Other times cells may be frustrated by a perceived lack of evolution when it may be that the rate of change for a system is so much slower than that of an individual cell.

But what would we be WITHOUT our systems. I like to think about those I couldn’t do without. Road systems. Communication systems. Support systems. School systems?

I’ve promised myself I’m NOT going to write about work until next week, but I will confess this. I think systemic auditing necessitates both kinds of divergent thinkers. Those who remain apart and those who remain a part. Those that choose the objectivity available (at least to an extent) on the outside of systems, who can call out directions or heckle from a better vantage point. And those who, despite the admitted mess, slow progress, and subjectivity that exists within systems, nevertheless choose to remain a part, in relationship with the very system that may slow its individual evolution.

At someone point I realized that though I like playing the free agent…I like to play this role WITHIN a system. Not without. I’m the weird aunt that people keep considering not inviting to the family potluck because she always brings something made with chia seed and talks about systemic social injustice. But I won’t be pushed out simply because I create a little good-hearted cognitive dissonance for the people around me. What’s more, I am a better version of myself, I find, when I can count on the patterns of others to create some order in my self-embodied chaos.

When it comes down to it, I’ve come to believe we don’t change each other through argument. We change each other through relationship. Individually AND systemically.

I’m benign, not malignant. I promise.