On being autistic and white
“Biologically speaking, we are programmed toward being tribal as a means of survival. We literally have to transcend an aspect of our own biology.” -Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, quoted in The Inner Work of Racial Justice by Rhonda Magee
This discussion was inspired by a chapter from The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming our Communities Through Mindfulness by Rhonda Magee. I thought I'd write about my personal reflections on how I am confronting racism in my own life.
A memory came to me while reading about some of Rhonda Magee's experiences of racism. In this memory, I was on active duty in the Army, sitting around ‘waiting’ with several others in my Company. Someone started up a conversation on dating and asked me if I had ever or would ever date a black man. I said without hesitation, “No, I prefer white men.”
There is some important context to this declaration. It is based on a conversation I had some days previous to this one about dating preferences, and one of the guys (let’s say his name is Davis) said something about his preference for dating black women. My first thought when Davis said this was that I understood ‘exactly’ what he meant and perhaps it was a perfectly natural and reasonable sort of preference – as in black people prefer to date people of the same skin colour and white people prefer their own, as well (such black-and-white thinking, ffs!). So, when I frankly declared my preference, the earlier conversation is partly where it was coming from. Of course, everyone was shocked and agitated by my statement. I tried to justify myself by explaining that Davis said he preferred dating black women. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with what I had said and was confused when everyone seemed so shocked by it.
What I do want to clarify now is that this is not an attempt to explain away or diminish my racism, because, in fact, this statement was, without a doubt, a genuine reflection of my own racist attitudes. As someone in the group pointed out to me, I just happened to be in a serious relationship with a man who was not white. I responded by saying something like, ‘that’s not the same’ or in other words ‘he’s not black.’ I definitely had racist attitudes but didn’t know I was showing my true colours in that moment. What I mean to emphasise by explaining my naivety is that I had no idea how socially inappropriate this was to say, which brings me straight to my point. Many autistic people don’t instinctively pick up on social norms. I, for example, rely on explicit explanations and then adapt accordingly. But modern racism is not always explicitly taught. In fact, I was explicitly taught to not use the n-word and that racism is wrong. However, I was not aware of my actual beliefs. Racial consciousness is implicitly taught whether we’re autistic or not.
My theory is: if you do not pick up on what is socially inappropriate in mixed company, you might just blurt it out at some point, whether it’s racist or sexist or otherwise. And I definitely have more stories where that one came from. What I see as a positive, at least for me, is that once I was explicitly taught about racism and how it manifests, I was able to see the evidence from my own life of those beliefs and attitudes and could work on expelling them whenever they surfaced. Whereas many people may not know how to do this because they don’t know their racist beliefs even exist. They don’t speak overtly racist attitudes because they know it would land them in hot water, and because they don’t speak them, they assume they’re not racist. This may be a big reason why racist beliefs get pushed so far down into our subconscious and surface when we least expect it. Yet, we are often taught to repress them rather than expose and expel them.
I completely understand why we repress them because we don’t want to be racist. So, if you are a white person who doesn’t want to be racist, you can learn to dig deep and be mindful of your thoughts and feelings. They may surface if you allow them to (especially when you’re reading about racism). And when they do surface, you have an opportunity to explore them more deeply in order to dissolve them.
Here are some examples of thoughts that could surface and which you may or may not have said out loud before. I have had many of these thoughts before and have said some of them out loud to others. I’ve also heard plenty of people say these in person and online.
- You’ve read some crime statistics about black people that unsettle you, and this sneaks its way into your thoughts during a discussion on racism. It might sound like this: ‘well, what about black-on-black crime’ or ‘but black people are killing and stealing and selling drugs.’
If you’ve had these or similar thoughts before, you may already know that statistics are not always reported to accurately reflect a percentage of the population (or accurately reported at all depending on the source). Statistics definitely can’t capture much more than numbers, anyway. They don’t tell us what’s really going on behind the numbers in the everyday lives of actual people. Moreover, white people are killing, stealing, buying and selling drugs, and so much more, and we have been doing so for centuries. But this is not reported as a white problem or it is covered up. Or we get away with it much more easily than black people. Or we justify it, and the law is on our side much more often. And the list of ‘or’ could go on.
Most importantly, it seems to me that this kind of thought almost certainly comes from a deep belief that black people are dangerous because we have been taught to believe they are dangerous. This is what racism does to us.
- You’ve wondered if black (or Latino) men are more sexually aggressive than white men. This could sound like: “Black men are different in how they express themselves sexually” or “black men are more sexually forward than white men” or “black people seem to be more assertive when coming on to women”… basically any thought that involves black people specifically and their sexuality.
This one is ugly because a lot of the time, this is what we perceive on television or in film rather than in reality. Black men are very often presented as big and intimidating (sexually or otherwise) and dangerous. White men often are too, but we don’t see their whiteness. They are individuals who happen to be the bad guys. And there are far more white good guys and heroes in film than there are black or Latino. We don’t get to see a 3-dimensional image of people of colour so often in film.
One point I want to make here is that men all around the world (and women too) can be aggressive and dangerous. White men are most certainly included here, but we have been taught that black men specifically are dangerous even though white men commit acts of rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, child abuse and homicide. If you live in a society where men have historically held the positions of power, chances are very high that plenty of men you personally know feel entitled to do whatever they want to women’s bodies. Whether we are white or brown or black or anything in between, if we haven’t been explicitly taught the importance of consent, then our societies will have taught us that consent is optional.
- You may have thought that Black people use the n-word or swear words in music a lot or think the music is degrading towards women or is filled with references to drugs… Your thoughts might sound like this: “black people use the n-word all the time, so why can’t I” or “black people create their own problems which have nothing to do with racism – listen to their music ffs” or “black people should be better role models”… or you might tell a young person of colour not to use swear words or references to drugs in their lyrics or poetry: ‘be more positive and uplifting,’ you might say.
I’d like to start with the thought about black people being degrading towards women, because I think that this is an especially harmful belief. As mentioned previously, some black men are degrading towards women. Many white men are degrading towards women, too. When this comes up in music (or poetry) lyrics, then it could be a reflection of a patriarchal system regardless of the musician’s skin colour. I say could be because music very often expresses nuanced meanings. The best music, in my opinion, will do this and can comment on a reality that exists for many people. With that said, there are many, many examples of music by black musicians that are inspiring and uplifting and so deeply profound, whether or not the lyrics contain offending language.
That brings me to my next point about swear words and references to drug use. In my opinion, swear words can be incredibly meaningful when they are well placed. I personally love all well-placed words and phrases because they add value to the song – swear word or otherwise. I respect that not everyone feels this way, but you can find ‘cleaner’ versions of the song or songs without swearing at all, if that’s your preference. Moreover, drug use and abuse is a reality for many people, and there are lots of differing opinions (even scientific and medical ones) on the value and dangers of drugs. Yet, drug abuse is certainly not a ‘black problem.’ It’s a problem for many people in our societies. So, if music has references to drug use or abuse, it could be a reflection of the societies in which the music was created. And anyway, drug references in music are often nuanced and meaningful to personal experiences, as well. My suggestion is to listen to what you like, and if you take offense to certain music, then be mindful of whether this feeling targets people of colour specifically. And realise that you may not like the music, and that’s ok! You don’t need to reduce black people to a stereotype simply because these problems of drug use/abuse, objectification of women, and swearing (if that’s a problem to you) are not at all exclusive to black people.
Racism is an incredibly complex system of thought and behaviour, and I totally appreciate how difficult it is to get your mind around it and how we all fit into it. And on top of that, our minds tend to defend against anything that calls us racist (or sexist, homophobic, etc.), because we also know that racism is bad and will instinctively reject any idea that implies we are bad. I would suggest being mindful, rather than judgmental, of the thoughts that come to your defense and learn to explore their subtle meanings and origins. If someone calls you out on a remark you’ve made, this might make you angry. But you can explore the subtler meanings of that anger, too!
We can transcend our social and biological conditioning!