Yes, I Am a Racist

Dec 10, 2014

I am a racist. I know this not only because of this test but because I am fortunate enough to have the skills and the education – both spiritual and political – to be aware that I am. I am fortunate to have the safety to open my heart to this truth, to be gently working to root out how my racism shapes me, and thus my world.

It is, ironically, a privilege to confront the racist I am. As in I’m privileged to do so.

I can still feel the Florida sunshine beating down on my head, the back of my thin neck, when I learned it wasn’t okay to love people of a different color. I was in third grade and it was my first day at a new school. We had moved over the summer to this new small Southern town. And a miracle had happened: I made a new best friend. On the very first day! Ethel Whitehead. I couldn’t wait to ask my mom if she could come over to play. We would drink Hawaiian Punch and watch Gillian’s Island and climb my favorite banyan tree. When the bell rang, I grabbed Ethel and we ran to my mom’s car. In my memory, the car is so big and my mom is so far above us.

“Mom, mom! This is Ethel. Can she come home to play?”  I am wearing my favorite polyester tunic with the word LOVE stitched in plastic over my heart.

I don’t remember what excuse my mom made. I’m sure it was polite. The words didn’t matter. It was the feeling: a stone rolled over our friendship. I learned without another word ever being said: it’s not okay to be friends with Ethel. Even now, recalling this, I can feel the shame of having transgressed. Of not being safe.

Here’s what startles 52-year-old me: I let go of Ethel’s hand. I didn’t protest. I knew this wasn’t right and I was not a compliant kid. I was, as they say, a handful. But not this day. I felt mom’s discomfort – hell, more than discomfort, I felt her panic – and I folded.

I can’t remember ever speaking to Ethel again. Soon I had a new BFF, Lisa. Our moms liked each other. We would all go get onion rings and chicken burgers at Lum’s out on Dixie Highway. Our parents would have cocktails together, even though Lisa’s parents were much younger than my dad and were “hippies.” Yeah, at least they were white.

This is not a post about blaming my parents or the south or myself. What a waste of time.

This is a post about how I can be part of changing how race is lived out in my world. This is a post about not pretending. Not pretending I lean away from the discomfort I still sometimes feel with people of color. Not pretending I don’t have an unconscious bias running me. Not pretending I’d rather not deal with being racist, how racism kills, maims, thwarts.

Yep, give me climate change any day. Rather go toe to toe with a climate change denier than my own racism any day.

Because I’m a racist. And yes, writing that sentence makes me sick to my stomach and to admit it frees me to stop throwing up my hands and declaring, “It’s too complicated; I can’t do anything about this.” I am routinely, consistently, profoundly biased.

I’m willing to admit it. Again and again. How about you?

Who is your “other” that you shy away from or judge? Maybe your “other” wears Asian skin or Native American or brown? I was also raised with a fear of Japanese because my father fought in the Pacific in WWII.

And let’s be clear – I learned this by sharing the first draft of this post with Chitra Aiyar from the Sadie Nash Leadership Project and Ebonni N. Byrant from The Idea, Inc. – we all have “others” we judge and are afraid of. We are all prejudiced. But white people’s prejudice has a far greater impact on people’s lives than prejudice against us by people of color. Because we have the power.

Yes, we all have unconscious biases, but white people’s biases support a racist system. Say you work in H.R. and you’re reading resumes to schedule interviews for an open position. But you don’t realize your unconscious bias makes if far less likely that you’ll select a black person to be interviewed simply because of their name. Not their experience, not their education, but their name.

This weekend I was at a writing workshop with women of color and I put my arm around my old story that I’m not cool enough to be friends with black women. That I’m too square. Yes, that’s been my story since childhood, because in my racially fractured schools, I experienced ridicule and small acts of violence. And then it wasn’t like mom and dad were saying, “Let’s get over our unconscious bias.” So that became another way to distance myself and protect myself – “they” wouldn’t want to be friends with me anyway. Every time I see these stories of mine – which often start as a tingle of embarrassment or a desire to pull away – I have a chance to do something different.

Of course, it’s not enough to examine your bias. We each have to work to move racism out of our world (you could drive a truck through that understatement). Here are a few ideas of literally millions:

  • Give money to Equal Justice Initiative (you can do it as a gift and they will send an email or letter to someone on your behalf). Bryan Stevenson and his team are an incredible force for justice.
  • Or to Homeboy Industries, Father Greg’s non-profit to help former gang members and the previously incarcerated with hope, training, and job skills. (Notice if this last appeal brings up bias in you: “Those boys got into trouble themselves, why should I help them?”)
  • Read others’ reflections on processing racism and their part in it. Smart piece here and this in the Seattle Times too.
  • I love what Thorn Coyle writes.
  • Franchesca Ramsey’s videos make changing racism fun – start here, then subscribe to her channel.
  • Speak up when you see someone being racist. Yes, even at a family dinner.
  • Support Black-owned businesses.
  • From my friend author Oriah Mountain Dreamer, “As one tiny piece of this, I keep thinking of opening the narrative in communities – setting up ways to have people of colour tell their personal stories (at your church, your community centre, your school) where others are supported and encouraged (perhaps taught) how to listen deeply. When we really get another’s experience we are stirred to act in the community in support of their needs and rights. What is needed is a real cultural shift (i.e the laws are there but not equally applied) and cultural shifts happen because stories that have been unheard and excluded are heard, included and allowed to shape our ways of seeing and being together.” This reminds me (Jen) of Elizabeth Lesser’s TED talk, “Take ‘the Other’ to Lunch.”

Over to you – what are you doing to see racism in yourself? To eliminate racism in your world? To “talk to the other?” Please consider commenting on this post, rather than via email; it makes us feel less alone, especially me writing this vulnerable post. Thanks for sharing!



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