By most people’s definition, I am not a racist.
I was raised in a home where racism and racial prejudice were neither accepted nor tolerated. In fact, I was actively taught that variations in skin color were beautiful, like diversely colored flowers in a garden. My parents didn’t burden me with subconscious, racist mental tapes. The main message I received about race from my two strongest influences—my parents and my faith community—was that we are all part of one human race and one human family.
As a result, I was never taught, actively or passively, to fear black people. In fact, I always had a sense that if I had brought home a guy of any darker skin shade, my parents would have been thrilled. When I was in college, a friend remarked that her dad would croak if she brought home a black boy. That concept was completely foreign to me.
When it comes to purse clutching or crossing the street, I honestly have more instincts to do that when a white man approaches than a black man. The only explanation I have for that is that my biggest fear is the Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers of the world. Though I’ve learned that the ethnicity of serial killers actually falls closely along the lines of society’s demographics in general, I still associate psycho killers with white, middle-aged males. I have no instinctual feelings of threat when I see a black man.
Curious to see if I’m just deluding myself by thinking I don’t have many deep-seated racial prejudices, I took this implicit racial bias test from Harvard University. In fact, I took it twice. Both times, my result showed a slight preference for African Americans over European Americans. It may not be accurate, and my hunch is that it’s not totally methodologically sound, but that’s my result. According to the geniuses at Harvard, I really don’t have any subconscious negativity toward black people—quite the opposite, in fact.
I suppose it makes sense. As race unity is one of the primary principles of my faith, I’ve been involved in countless classes, workshops, and discussions focused on overcoming racism and racial prejudice. I’ve read books on the struggles of interracial couples and families, attended talks by people at the forefront of racial issues in America, and helped organize festivals celebrating unity in diversity.
Though my immediate family is as white as Wonder bread, my extended family is a veritable feast of multiculturalism. Of my five sisters-in-law, one is African-American, one is Columbian, and one is Korean. I have eight nieces and nephews who are biracial. I also have many, many friends whose families are gorgeous mixes of varying shades.
Frankly, if post-racial America were a real thing, I could be its white poster child.
I’m not sharing all of this to boast about my lack of prejudices. I’m sharing so that I can explain how, despite my inclusive upbringing, my apparent lack of implicit racial bias, my multiracial family, and my faith’s focus on race unity, I still struggle with racism.
Yes, I am a racist. And chances are, so are you. Don’t take it personally.
Racism is a fairly ambiguous term, so I’ll define it based on my own understanding and experience. To me, racism isn’t a conscious belief system of racial superiority, though it manifests that way in some people. Racism is not a set of subconscious negative biases, though it presents that way in some people. Racism isn’t defending George Zimmerman’s actions or Paula Deen’s cooking, though it sometimes shows itself through those transparencies. Racism is a systemic disease, a malfunction of the body politic, a malady that affects all of us, whether we recognize it or not.
Racism is a cultural cancer, caused, in large part, by our long human history of conquest, war, and fear of the “other.” Over time, fear mutated into superiority, “other” became “lesser,” and as civilization grew, those racist concepts became ingrained and institutionalized.
Though racism permeates every nation, it is particularly pervasive in America, a country that was literally built on racism. We’ve come a long way, but we can’t get away from the fact that the prosperity we proudly espouse as the American dream was first acquired on the backs of black slaves. We can’t get away from the fact that the phrase in our beloved founding document stating that “all men are created equal” really meant “all white men are created equal.” It’s ugly, but it’s the truth.
We can’t get away from the fact that our children are only two generations away from legal segregation. That’s not the distant past, that’s grandparents. No one could think that’s long enough to heal centuries of oppression, enslavement, and institutionalized inequality. And it’s certainly not long enough to believe that racism doesn’t affect every one of us, whether we recognize it or not. Pretending or wishing that racism isn’t a part of us, collectively and individually, won’t make it go away. That doesn’t mean it never will. I believe we can overcome it. But we have a long, hard row to hoe before then.
And in some ways, I think we’ve gotten stuck. Now that the legalities are out of the way, now that segregation is officially off the books, now that so many of the dreams Dr. King spoke of have come true (My God, we elected a black president, twice!)…where do we go from here? Because as far as we’ve come, we haven’t uprooted the problem yet. We’ve pulled the visible weed at the ground level, but there’s still a whole network of roots under the soil to dig up. And that’s the messier process. It’s difficult and dirty and easy to deny because those roots are impossible to see until you start digging.
That’s why I believe that the first hope of fighting this disease, of clearing this weed for good, is to take a good hard look in the mirror. The word “racist” is usually thrown around as a weapon, an insult, or a political tool. It’s practically a dirty word, and a loaded one at that. But to call myself racist is not a personal attack on myself; it’s acknowledging that I’m subconsciously affected, as we all are, by our not-as-distant-as-we-think history and our not-as-over-it-as-we-wish culture. It means I see the symptoms of the disease in my own life and in my own self. It means that even though I may not struggle with racism as deeply or publicly or in the same ways as others, I am not immune.
How does racism manifest itself for me, then? I’ve given this a lot of thought, and the symptoms are pretty subtle. Sometimes I feel frustrated when someone of another race is offended by something that I don’t see as racially offensive (as if that’s my call to make). Sometimes I don’t dig deep enough to understand someone’s background enough to empathize with them (because I don’t have to). Sometimes I don’t recognize my own white privilege, and when I do, I rarely consider what I might do about it (because it’s easier not to). Sometimes I fall into the trap of believing that treating everyone equally is enough (as if we’re all starting on a level playing field). Sometimes I get tired of the constant struggles over race in our society and want to just pretend like they don’t exist (as if people of color have not constantly been struggling with these issues without a choice).
Some people may not call those things racism, but I do. As a middle-class white person, I have the luxury of sticking my head in the sand if I want to, for an hour, a week, a year, without having to directly deal with racial issues in my daily life. And the fact that that option sometimes appeals to me, and that I sometimes let myself indulge in it, is evidence that the disease of racism is alive within me. Members of my human family are suffering, and I want to look the other way? If I don’t own that, if I don’t call those things out for the symptoms of the disease that they are, then I am not fully doing my part to battle racism. I’m still acting as a carrier.
So I try to acknowledge the signs and symptoms of racism within me, and I do so without self-flagellation or self-righteousness. Judgment does no good here. One thing my inclusive upbringing gave me is a deep sense that we’re all in this together. Some members of our human family are afflicted more obviously (and often obliviously) with racism. Others are affected more subtly (and often silently) by racism. But we all have a responsibility to battle this disease, in ourselves and in our society. If I can’t acknowledge that I’m vulnerable, that racism is something that constantly needs to be monitored and treated in my life, then how can I expect others to examine themselves and acknowledge their own racist tendencies?
Nothing about this is simple or easy. Just defining the word “racism” is tricky, and it gets more complex from there. And it’s hard to talk about these things. Conversations about racial issues can be difficult, awkward, inadvertently confrontational, and unintentionally hurtful. But conversations must be had if we ever hope to heal. Voices must be heard, even when they’re harsh or hard to understand. Medicine doesn’t always taste good. Treatment is sometimes as painful as the illness. But we can’t keep putting band-aids on festering wounds and ignore the fact that our society is being eaten away by this disease. We can’t pretend that racism doesn’t affect and infect each and every one of us. We have to get uncomfortable and have the hard conversations, even if we’re not sure how. And that includes having the hard conversations with ourselves.
I know some people will feel defensive when I say we’re all racist, as if I’m being accusatory. I’m really not. This is about naming, not blaming. Current generations aren’t to blame for our inherited racism, but I believe we have to name it and acknowledge it to overcome it. The battle belongs to all of us, no matter what race we are, how we were raised, or how much we believe in racial equality. I wasn’t taught to be a racist. I was raised to fight racism wherever I see it. And in striving toward that goal, I’ve learned that fighting racism starts with finding it within myself, every day.
Until we all start to own the racism that pervades our society, as well as own the responsibility for healing, we can’t get to the root of this disease. If we don’t own it, then it doesn’t feel like “our” problem. Then it’s easy to get into a blame game, pointing to those whose racism is clearer than ours and calling on them to do the work. We live in a society permeated by racism, but very few people other than actual white supremacists would say they were racist. Clearly there are a whole lot of us in denial.
Healing begins when denial ends, individual by individual, generation by generation. It starts with me seeing the racism in me and you seeing the racism in you, and us patiently and painstakingly working together to cure it. It starts with teaching our children to see humanity as one family and one race—and helping them understand the realities of where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we need to go from here—and teaching them to recognize the roots of racism that may try to creep into their own hearts.
We have to move beyond platitudes and inspiring speeches. We have to kneel in the soil and get our hands dirty. We must find the tools to help us loosen the roots that cling so desperately, still, to America’s foundation.
If I look in the mirror and don’t see dirt under my fingernails, I know I’m not doing my part to battle racism. Pristine hands are not a virtue here. The work belongs to all of us.
This post originally appeared in slightly different form on Adventures in Lakeschooling.