I’m not a racist!
When I was 19 I went on a Spring Break trip to Los Angeles. There were 50 of us and we spent our days working throughout the city at various nonprofits and community centers and our evenings discussing issues of race and justice. On the first night of the trip, while we ate pizza and decompressed from the day, we listened to a welcome talk given by a white man who worked at the neighborhood center where we would be sleeping each night. His opening line to us was this: “You are all racists. Every. last. one of you.”
Not one for easing into things, that guy. Consistent with the demographics of the small private Christian college I attended, the overwhelming majority of our group was white. I was sitting near the back and I remember thinking, “Excuse me??? Who are you calling racist? My high school boyfriend was totally Korean. How could I be a racist if I dated someone who wasn’t white? No way.” I’d like to say that despite my discomfort I listened with an open mind and thus began a lifelong quest of inner examination and contemplation surrounding race and my own whiteness. But I didn’t. I completely tuned him out, full of my own righteous indignation.
It might have helped if our speaker had defined his terms. And maybe he did, I wouldn’t know. Understanding the terms is important. I didn’t like being called a racist. Nobody does. But the problem stems largely, I think, from the definition; the designations we make for what racism is and isn’t. So let’s start there. Racism, as defined by Merriam Webster, is:
- (a) the poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race and/or
- (b) the belief that some races of people are better than others.
When I considered whether or not I was racist, I was looking to that first part of the definition. Racist? Not a chance! I have never treated someone poorly or, heaven forbid, resorted to violence against someone because of their race. I wouldn’t dream of it. Taking stock of that first definition left me feeling like my conscience was clear and ready to defy anyone who would challenge me on it. My dukes were up.
But the second half of the definition — the belief that some races of people are better than others — is where the line started to get a little fuzzy. My first response was still a stubborn, “Me? No way! I don’t think that!” But on closer examination even I had to admit that there was another story was playing out, both in the culture and in my own mind. There are studies, I discovered, that show that children, even black children, have a clear preference for white dolls over black ones. This was originally discovered by husband and wife psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in the 1940s and, if you’re like me, you probably assume it’s an outdated study. Certainly we’ve come a long way since the 1940s. That was then and this is now. But Kiri Davis repeated the study in 2006 and found that the results hadn’t changed.
There’s also the fact that most people on welfare are white — whites actually take in a whopping 69% of government benefits — but most Americans think the majority of welfare recipients are black. Our workforce still remains strongly stratified by race. We continue to perpetuate the myth that black fathers are more absent than most when recent findings actually show the opposite. And we continue to uphold and perpetuate the myth of Asians as the “model minority.”
But still, I argued with myself. I’m not part of that.
This, here, was the critical juncture for me. It was the point at which I realized I could either keep shouting “not me! not me! not me!” or I could admit that even though I might not fully understand it, I am a part of this. I am part of the dominant race in a country whose kids are choosing white dolls over black ones; whose preschoolers make the black kids play the part of the “bad guys” on the playground; whose black citizens are imprisoned for drug possession at a wildly disproportionate rate compared to their white counterparts; whose white students routinely outnumber Latino and Black students in the gifted programs in our schools despite the fact that science shows giftedness to occur at exactly the same rate across all racial groups.
The belief that some races of people are better than others evidently does exist, at least on some level, although it apparently simmers so far beneath the surface that many of us, myself included, are often wholly unaware of it. I kept looking at the first half of the definition and exonerating myself. But I eventually realized that even if I had never uttered a single word that could be construed as “racist,” I was still racist. I know this because, even now, after years of self-reflection and efforts to override my conditioning and socialization, when I hear about an accomplished scientist or brilliant author, my mind conjures a white person. The belief that some races of people are better than others.
Even though I had believed myself to be entirely above reproach all those years ago, I finally came to a place where I could look at the larger landscape and see that something was amiss; and that I, myself, was an inextricable part of the landscape. The U.S. has a systemic problem with race and I am part of the system. That is where I found myself about a year after that night in LA: alone in my apartment, eating a hearty piece of humble pie and wondering how I had been so blind. It took me longer than it should have but I got there eventually. But I had to stop fighting first. I had to settle down, stop defending myself in order to allow these other stories to unfold before me. It was only after I stopped fighting that I was able to see the world, and our country in particular, in new ways. And that was when I was finally ready to begin the hard work of digging down through those deeper, more painful, layers of my own prejudices.
Ready for the Next Stage?
The Rest of the Series
Click HERE for Stage One: I’m Not a Racist!
Click HERE for Stage Two: Get This Thing Off of Me!
Click HERE for Stage Three: Look at Me! Look at Me! I’m a WPGI!
Click HERE for Stage Four: Awareness Fatigue
Click HERE for Stage Five: What Now?
And for the complete series all in one place, click HERE.