This is a question I have been asking myself a lot recently. And I think there are a lot of people who believe the answer is yes. But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there’s a difference between being racist and being ignorant — and I mean ignorant in the most literal sense of the word. Lots of people are just unexposed, haven’t experienced racism and are completely removed from what racism really is (systemic stratification based on the belief that a certain race is superior).

Some people are just outright racist and will act on their belief in white supremacy to the point that any advancement of people outside of that supremacy is a personal affront to their way of life. (Sound familiar at all? Think about the objections to Barak Obama’s presidency)

For others the racism is far more insidious. They pretend to be allies by claiming color blind, but any time race comes up in a conversation they defend themselves as an example of why racism isn’t an issue anymore. “Why do I have to feel guilty about my privilege?” “But I have plenty of black friends.” “I struggled too!”

These are the arguments of enlightened racists who benefit from a system they defend by refusing to see that they benefit from it. It’s not about whether or not you have black friends or lived a hard knock life. As a racial class, white people can get into college and most will assume its based on merit, not because they were the beneficiary of affirmative action (yep, that happened to a friend of mine). How about not needing affirmative action in the first place?

My Irish husband has been told over an over since he moved here a year ago that he doesn’t have to worry because “you look like us,” or “they’re not looking for you,” all code for he doesn’t have to worry because he’s white. And they say things like this in front of me, his black wife. What’s worse is that I’ve said it too, and it’s true!

Is my husband a racist? No. He is aware of and acknowledges that while he still has his own immigrant experience, he is the beneficiary of a racist system. He doesn’t try to stop me from talking about it or tell me I’m being too sensitive when I get upset. And when a friend of ours tried to say I was an exception and therefore not like “those other black people,” he called her out faster than I could, because that’s some racist shit to say.

I refuse to believe that white people are inherently racist. I do believe, however, that in order to not be racist, white people have to acknowledge their own privilege, and stop defending themselves when the topic of racism comes up. Defending yourself is essentially defending the racist system, which makes you complicit. The only reason to defend the system is because you are afraid you will somehow stop benefiting from it. If you aren’t willing to let go of that privilege, then yes, you are a racist because you enable racism to continue for your own benefit.