About twenty years ago whenever the issue of racism was mentioned in the presence of my white suburban friends there was always someone to assure us that “we don’t have that problem here.” Pursuing that statement usually led to another one that went something like this: “Well, there aren’t many black people here” … so the logic seemed to say … of course … “no problem.”
I knew then that my friends were wrong for a number of reasons. First, they assumed that the problem of racism existed only when people of color were present. The assumption “located” the problem among black people and other people of color; it failed to see that racism is rooted in white people and in white institutions whether or not there are black people present. Second, I knew that the absence of many black people was itself part of the problem; attitudes and practices by the majority white population limited the choice of blacks who may have wanted to live in the suburbs. Third, the “no problem” argument was an attempt to avoid responsible action; if there is “no problem” or if the problem is somewhere else, then one is absolved from doing anything. Fourth, I knew that a lot of people in the suburbs were there precisely because they wanted to avoid “urban problems,” and that many of my friends equated “urban problems” with the presence of racial minority groups. To assert that “we have no problem here” was to distance themselves from the city.
That was some time ago, and while the “no problem” attitude still persists it is argued in slightly different forms now.
One of the “new” statements of the “no problem” syndrome proceeds from an assumption that there is no problem of racism unless there is some overt incident which expresses hatred and bigotry. Recently a high school principal assured me, within minutes of our introduction, that “we have no race problem here.” That meant there had been no stabbing, no violence, no racially-motivated incident in the school. Before seeing the principal I had already talked with a number of students, both black and white, and a couple of teachers; they had all told me of the presence of racism in a variety of forms in classrooms, corridors, and school activities. But the principal made it his priority to assure me that there was “no problem.”
In the “no problem” view, the word “problem” is used almost exclusively to refer to an incident of bigotry; someone calls a name, a racial slur appears in graffiti, an openly discriminatory act occurs. When something like that occurs, people on the site and in the community are quick to respond, ready to condemn it, and hopefully, equipped to administer a just solution. In many instances, after that initial response everyone goes back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. A collective sigh of relief goes up as everyone says, again, “we have no problem.” It is the underlying, ever-present problem that is seldom addressed. Most white people don’t believe it is there, they don’t want to have it pointed out, are eager to leave it alone. So the enculturated, institutionalized base of the problem goes untreated. It remains the festering bed of the next incident.
There is a second interesting way in which the “no problem” argument appears. A recent experience on a college campus is an example. I was on campus to conduct discussions about racism with a number of different people. A number of faculty and administrators were concerned that I might “stir up something,” and thus create a problem. That response embodies two contrary assumptions. First, it betrays a fear that a placid “no problem” setting will be disturbed. “There is no problem here, so what are you looking for … why are you here … any problem will be your creation … so be careful, and leave as quickly and quietly as possible, please.” I had enough time and talked to enough people who did acknowledge the presence of a problem. The statement of “no problem” was then seen as a way of keeping that placid exterior calm. So we are not far from the second and contrary assumption behind the “don’t stir up something” pleas. That second assumption is that there is “something” to be stirred up. If there were no problem, there would be no need to be concerned about “stirring up” something because the “something” to be “stirred up” would be non-existent. “Don’t stir up anything” is a plea to avoid the problem. It may be founded in fear that the problem is in fact more pervasive, more difficult, more present than people want to deal with. “Bury it” … “it will go away” … but “don’t disturb anybody or anything.”
The “no problem” response to racism is usually heard from white people, and usually in institutional settings where there are few people of color. Since I have not yet found an institution where there is no problem, my assumption always is that we have simply to uncover it.
It doesn’t take long for most people of color to say there is a problem. If the problem is not identified, and if there are no mechanisms for continually dealing with the problem, it is more likely to erupt in an ugly form at another day and time. As with most problems, it is best to identify it, respond to it and provide support for everyone in the situation while attempting to move beyond racism. To leave the sore unattended is to invite a more serious manifestation later.
People of color can tell you where the problem is, and what its effects are. White people who have been sensitized to racism can also be helpful. The important thing is to put aside fear of the problem, because it is a human problem which can be solved by people of good will.
Our culture is deeply ingrained with racism; our institutions are founded on it. As long as we move in this culture and in the institutions of this culture, assume a problem of racism. Don’t fear it; discover it; uncover it; even stir it up if necessary. Then we can begin to deal with it. If we don’t do that, then we’ll soon be right back at the same old place … “we have no problem” … again!