As the social consciousness of this country evolved, the concept of being racist went from being something that was normal, even good, to being something that was socially taboo. After the Civil Rights Movement, we made a collective agreement that to be a racist was to be a bad person. Racists were the people on TV in 1963 blasting black protesters with fire hoses. They were the people who used the n word and enacted emotional and physical violence. They were the lynchers, the KKK, and in modern times, they're the men who marched and chanted at Charlotesville.
We essentially created a binary where RACIST = BAD and NOT RACIST = GOOD. Only bad people can be racist. To be a good person, you cannot and must not be racist. However, in a country where we internalize beliefs from our neighborhoods, the media, music, movies, tv shows, and our schools from before we can even remember, this binary forces us to pretend we've received no messaging about race. It asks us not to question any subconscious beliefs we've internalized about superiority, power, the whiteness of the government, the whiteness of CEOs, and the blackness of the prison system. All we must know is that racism is bad and that we don't support it.
Questioning our subconscious and implicit biases then puts us in a moral dilemma - if we admit that we internalized some bias, such as that black men are more prone to crime, does that mean we're racist and bad people? In order to escape this dilemma, we have thus far closed our eyes to it, preventing any growth or restructuring to the consciousness we've developed.
This binary, which was meant to be helpful and condemn racism, has become an iron grid locking us all in place. The reason we, as white people, can so easily look the other way on this is we are on the top side of the iron grid. The brown and black communities, however, are on the bottom side of it, and being crushed by its weight. This binary is blocking all progress and action steps towards equality. Because white people dread and bristle at any implication of being called a racist, when a person of color mentions we have done or said something hurtful, we feel attacked. We don't hear what they're saying about why a certain phrase or behavior is rooted in stereotyping or ignorance. We don't see the hurt we've caused. We don't hear the frustration as they try to open our eyes. All we hear is, "You are racist," which in our binary systems means, "You are a bad person."
As Robin Diangelo, the author of White Fragility says, "Within this paradigm, to suggest I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow - a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go - to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it."
In order to tear this iron grid down, we, as white people, must realize that racism is not on a binary. It's not an either/or. It's a complicated, messy, network of threads that runs through the entire fabric of our society. Good people have biases. Good people are effected by the relentless, dominant, societal messaging that is inescapable. Good people are caught up in the social conditioning of racism as much as anyone else. In order to tear down systemic racism, we must confront the fact that we can strive to be good people while also working on our biases.
In an ideal world, the human mind would not form biases. But it does. And pretending it doesn't does not make us color blind. It makes us color silent (a term coined by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum). Pretending not to see race and racism, and refusing to reflect on our own social consciousness, does not make us an ally to people of color. It just makes us silent.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Side note: Addressing the racist binary does not address the full complexities of bias and prejudice. Homophobia and Islamophobia do not fall into a binary - there are many people who feel morally superior for supporting them. Thus, it's important we continue to discuss all forms of hate and oppression on an ongoing basis. These conversations are still necessary and integral to change.