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When my daughter was very little, three or four years old, there was a conversation we would have all too often. I tried not to nag about minor dangers, preferring for her to learn safety through experience. But from time to time she would do something risky that could easily have been made less so, such as running down polished wooden stairs in her socks. “Be careful,” I would say. “Those socks are slippery on the stairs.”
Her almost invariable reply was: “I am being careful.”
“For example,” I would persist, “You could walk. Or take your socks off. Or hold on to the banister.”
“But I’m being careful!” she would say, hurtling down the slippery stairs in her slippery socks without a hand on the banister.
To her, “being careful” was something you did in your mind. Having declared the intention of carefulness, she could continue iffy actions without concern, as if the words were a magic spell. To me, the warning “be careful” implied action: if you want to be careful, you mitigate the risks by holding on or switching to bare feet. Otherwise, what you have in your mind doesn’t mean a thing.
Sometimes she fell and sometimes she didn’t, but the magical thinking wore off eventually, as it does. Magical thinking is common in young children–in fact, a key developmental stage–and they outgrow it. Except that I keep noticing it in adults when it comes to racism and white supremacy.
“I’m not being racist!” we white people tend to insist, holding up our good intentions as the magic amulet that will keep us from perpetuating white supremacy. But the intentions will not do that. Only our actions will.
If I feel like I’m opposed to white supremacy, if I want white supremacy to end, but I accept the lower car insurance premiums offered to me only because of my perceived race, or dismiss the abundant evidence of racist policing, or don’t take any action about redlining or hiring discrimination, then my actions are maintaining white supremacy.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto will shortly participate in the White Supremacy Teach In brought to us by the excellent work of Black Lives of UU, and I think that in my role of educating adults, I will emphasize this attention to action. (Dan Harper, our Minister of Religious Education, will be leading the children’s piece.) For too long, white conversations about racism have focused on what is within us, whether it’s guilt- or shame-inducing (“I had a racist thought! I’m bad!”) or a source of righteous pride (“I’m an anti-racist racist!”), and as far as I can tell, it has been largely counterproductive. So as I strive “to be the change I want to see” (Gandhi), I am trying to worry less about what is in my mind and heart, and focus more on what actions I am taking–or declining to take. William James observed, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”
The sovereign voluntary path (what a great phrase!) to eradicating white supremacy from our hearts is to act and speak for justice and equality. Or, as I said ad nauseam to my child when she was small and prone to magical thinking: saying “I’m careful” doesn’t make you careful–grabbing the banister makes you careful! So: let’s do this thing. Right now, instead of thinking “How awful” about discrimination in car insurance–which is true, but does nothing for anyone–click on that link, and if your insurance company falls into the pattern, write to them pressing for a reversal. Here’s my letter. I expect I may need to send a follow-up, so I’ve put it on my calendar for 60 days from now.
April 6, 2017
The Progressive Corporation
6300 Wilson Mills Rd.
Mayfield Village, Ohio 44143
I was impressed by the careful methodology of ProPublica’s investigation into whether car insurance companies charge some people more for liability insurance depending on their likely race:
Being committed to the eradication of white supremacy, I naturally looked in the data for my own company, Progressive, and was dismayed to see that the disaparities in your liability premiums are striking, especially in Missouri. (The study only looked at four states.)
I know that unconscious bias can cause us to perpetuate white supremacy without intending to. Charging some people more for the same risk, depending only on where they live, is a textbook case of institutional racism, and it hurts people of color. I hope you will undertake a review of your premiums as quickly as possible (piggybacking on the research ProPublica did should expedite this process), correct the problem, and reimburse those customers who have been paying unfairly high premiums for years.
Please keep your customers informed of your actions on this matter. For my part, I will be asking ProPublica to look into home insurance to see if it is likewise biased.
Amy Zucker Morgenstern
Or, you know, act on whatever aspect of white supremacy is most infuriating to you. Just act. And if you’re near Palo Alto, join us for the Teach In April 30.