I am racist.
I mean, I’d be lying to say anything else. I’m a white, straight, cisgendered, middle-aged, middle-class American man. I was raised in the 80s. I grew up in a majority white neighborhood in a majority white college town. Even with parents and school teaching that racism was wrong, how could I not harbor racist thoughts?
Today, whenever I have a racist thought, I yell at myself inside my head and fight my racist training. Because that’s what it is: training. Through media and news, through history books and racist relatives, I have racist thoughts.
I didn’t used to. As a little kid I didn’t. Black kids in my class were friends, full stop. But the training starts early, and I’m sure that by high school my racism was in place. And while the anti-racist training my parents instilled was equally well in place, one moment crystallized how insidious the training is.
I have a disabled little brother — cerebral palsy and autism. He’s ten years younger than me, one of the happiest and friendliest kids I’ve ever known. He watches a lot of TV, mostly cartoons. One day when he was around maybe eight, we were walking on the sidewalk and passed two young, black male college students who were going the other direction. My brother looked at me and said in the strained speech that people who don’t know him have trouble understanding: “Those are bad guys.”
Shocked, I corrected him. “No, they’re students.” I wanted to berate him, but all he would have taken away was my anger, because he’s is incapable of discussing broad concepts. He can’t describe a ball, he can only point to one. And clearly, just like he had been taught to point to a ball, he could point out young black men as “bad”.
I spent days trying to figure out what he had possibly seen that would lead him to think that. Certainly nothing said in our house. Something our grand-mother had said? That was definitely possible. She loved telling racist jokes, slyly, with a smile that said she was getting away with something. It took me years to realize those jokes were about race, which shows how clueless I was, how insulated. I doubted my brother could understand, though it wasn’t impossible.
Still, I kept coming back to media, and the training. It’s no revelation to anyone today, but to 18 year-old me, actively looking for racism in media, it was stunning. Because it’s everywhere. It’s in Looney Tunes, which I love. It’s in every cop show, ever. It’s in music. And boy-howdy, it’s in the news — especially since the rise of FOX News.
And this training leads to involuntary racist thoughts.
Discussing this with my wife, she pointed out that these aren’t active thoughts. They’re so deeply imbedded that they’re sub-thoughts, habitual thoughts, like language or stopping at stop signs or riding a bike. It takes active thought NOT to stop at a stop sign. And like riding a bike, once learned, it never goes away.
One friend calls himself a “recovering racist,” because, like a recovering alcoholic, every day requires a choice.
So yeah. I have racist thoughts. It sucks, and I hate it, but they pop in there, unbidden and unwelcome.
Here’s the thing. You can’t help thoughts. But you can choose your actions. And it is my goal, in every action I take and every word I say or write, to be anti-racist.
An analogy. Four years ago I was diagnosed with high cholesterol (lost the genetic lottery on that one, and my potato chip intake doesn’t help). So I went on a brand-name statin.
Within two months, I was having suicidal thoughts. For the first time in my life I thought I should just drive my car into a tree and end it. It was appealing. It was even somehow comforting, the idea of ending my life.
Thing is, I knew in my rational brain that this wasn’t right, it wasn’t normal, and I had to fight it. I stopped taking the statins, the thoughts went away.
That’s what we white people need to do. Stop swallowing the racist pill, and fight with all our might the racist thoughts that have been inserted there. It’s a disease in our own minds, and we have the power to fight it. All we have to do is choose to suit up. Every day.
I am racist, but not a racist. In action, in words, I strive to be anti-racist. Because I recognize racism in my head as surely as I recognized suicide. Neither belong there, and both are deadly if given reign.