I’m a racist. Seriously. I really am a racist. Now you won’t see me driving around with confederate flags on my vehicle, denying the Holocaust or attending white nationalist rallies. I’m far more stealth, and therefore, dangerous. I could be sitting next to you at church, a board member of a local non-profit, or even attending a pride march. Yep. I go unseen in most every circle. I know my people and we are the majority.
Here’s the deal. I was born into it. Nothing unusual or unique here…just a kid growing up in the white middle class suburbs of Flint, Michigan, and attending a racially-integrated Catholic school on the other side of the tracks in the 1970’s. And like most every other racist, I’ve spent most of my life believing I wasn’t—vehemently denying any accusation pointed in my direction, and rarely missing an opportunity to self-righteously call it as I see it in others.
Sure, I had my “black friends” that helped me rationalize my own denial while ignoring that they were from the sub-set of school mates I judged as acting more like white people. And few things were more reassuring that I was not a racist than when my black friends allowed me to call them by the “N” word, in “proper” context of course. I mean, I was an accepted member of the black community in my mind. Oh, and how I remember the self-righteous satisfaction that came from the courageous position of cheering on my white friends whilst they delivered a pounding upon a fellow white kid that used the “N” word in what was judged as “improper” context. I needed no better proof of my superior position in the non-racist spectrum. No doubt we fancied ourselves civil rights activists.
“If you think you don’t hate, then I believe you are simply defining hate on your own terms in order that it will always be something that you see in others, but never in yourself.“
Somewhere along my journey to racist recovery I realized there really isn’t a cure. I kinda view it like alcoholism. When you are in denial, you pretty much surround yourself with a reassuring blanket of other alcoholics and remain in denial of the hurt and pain you leave in your wake. Once you accept it, recovery requires you to shed that blanket of friends, be brutally honest with yourself, and stay ever vigilant to it popping up in your life…for the rest of your life.
What it comes down to is that I don’t believe we can ever not be a racist without first accepting that we are. Having been raised in a racist society, you don’t become non-racist simply by intellectually disagreeing with the institution of racism. If you think you don’t hate, then I believe you are simply defining hate on your own terms in order that it will always be something that you see in others, but never in yourself. When life experience penetrates our denial I suspect most of us modify our definitions either reluctantly or subconsciously. That way we can always look to someone more racist or hateful than ourselves relative to where we stand at any moment in time.
Racism is not black or white. Like most things it’s a spectrum with no shortage of grey areas and little consensus. Awareness of my own racism helps me to understand and find some peace in the fact that interpretation of an action or statement such as “Go back to where you came from” can mean completely different things to differing and reasonable people. Depending on context, it could be simply moronic, racially insensitive, or downright hateful.
A turning point for me came rather late in life in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally. While discussing the merits, or lack thereof, of the violet tactics of the ANTIFA movement a friend dismissed by perspective on race and racism because of my status as a “rich white male.” I don’t think it occurred to either of us that her status as a white woman of privilege had any bearing on the merits of her ideas, yet she dismissed my position while steadfastly denying that her statement contained a shred of racism, sexism or bigotry.
This experience contributed to my understanding that the recipient of hate is in the best position to define it or call it out. Today, I can look back on my actions and understand that when I used language of hate, I was simply unable or unwilling to see it as such. I was blinded by my own certainty. But no doubt it was hurtful and racist to others, despite the fact that I would have been baffled by, or even attacked, someone that called me out. Likewise, while the journey of life has brought new insight, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the difficulty I have identifying where my racist thoughts hide and manifest themselves today. I accept that there are others that see it in me where I do not, while I can only see it in others when they behave in ways I once did.
When I look out into the world, the dangerous ones are not the buffoons that attend white nationalist rallies and wear racism on their sleeve like a badge of honor. It’s the silent, complacent and invisible that perpetuate racism and hate. It can take many forms. For example, many can support a racist political leader as long as their people aren’t the targets of discrimination, mass shootings or deportations. Imagine if the people in cages along our southern boarder were Caucasian and Christian fleeing religious persecution. Would it not be a different political demographic calling for the detentions and child separation to end? Who then would be the silent and complacent ones? And what if the institutionalized racial disparities in our criminal just system changed colors over night? Does anyone not think that many voices would fall silent, while a different and new set began to speak up? Either way, it can very likely be our own unrealized racism and bigotry that fuels our outrage or our silence. And therein lies the danger. We can’t see it for what it is, if we first can’t see it in ourselves. We are the person sitting next to you in church, the banker, the carpenter, the law enforcement officer and the school teacher. We come in all colors, races and ethnicities. And we are the majority.