I'm Racist, You're Racist, We're All Racist Here
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 tapes, such as the ones my friend Paula bravely admitted to in her recent post. 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 men. 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.
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 delicious mixes of cream, coffee, and chocolate. That Cheerios commercial that garnered so much attention reflects normality for me.
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 an 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 our history still stares us in the face. 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 will. I believe we can overcome it. But we have a long, hard row to hoe before then.
And I believe that the first hope of fighting this disease is to acknowledge it within ourselves. 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 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 generally pretty subtle. Sometimes I feel frustrated when someone of another race is offended by something that I don’t see as racially offensive. Sometimes I don’t dig deep enough to understand someone’s background enough to empathize with them. Sometimes I don’t recognize my own white privilege, and when I do, I rarely consider what I might do about it. Sometimes I fall into the trap of believing that treating everyone equally is enough. Sometimes I get tired of the constant struggles over race in our society and want to just pretend like they don’t exist.
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, no matter how many Race Unity Day functions I help plan. 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 about as complex as it gets. 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 bruises 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 supremecists 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.
Annie blogs about motherhood, education, nomadic living, and the beauty and craziness of life in general at www.motherhoodandmore.com