Not an easy sentence to think, let alone type where you intend others to read it.
Yes I am racist and I am Jewish.
Yes I am racist and the parent of 2 Black children.
Yes I am racist and one of my best friends is indeed Black.
Yes I am racist and I go out of my way to be kind to, smile at, chat with, the people of color I encounter in day to day life.
Yes I am racist and so is Paula Deen** and so is Kelly Osbourne, and so my dear White reader, are you.
Really. It’s okay to admit it. The word won’t brand you or consign you to hell. It’s just a word. It’s not poison. It’s not acid. It need not destroy you on contact. It needn’t make you irredeemable or a pariah.
Admitting that I do have racist responses to the world I live in and the people I encounter – no matter how subtle those responses are – is the only way I can fully take ownership of who I am in the world. I must take responsibility for my involuntary thoughts and fleeting emotions that betray centuries of ingrained programming. Else I am not choosing freely who I am.
How do I know I’m racist? Well I’ve never “clutched my purse tighter when a black man got on an elevator”, but I have:
- Locked my car doors when driving through neighborhoods in DC where Black people lived.
- Had the thought, upon noticing more Black and Brown families shopping in L—berg, that the economics of the area must be in a down turn.
- Felt uncomfortable being the only patron in my nail salon when the Vietnamese nail techs begin to talk to one another.
- Had to check my reactions to MY OWN DAUGHTER, because the stony face and cocked neck she has when she’s angry at me triggers the image of a [and yes I am going to confess my sin for real] uppity Black girl. Yes. I have had that thought about my own daughter.
Do I consciously embrace racist beliefs? No. Of course not. Would I proudly and consciously behave in a racist manner or make judgments and act on them on the basis of racist reactions and beliefs? No. Of course not. This is the difference between being racist — having unexamined racist thoughts, beliefs, and reactions — and being A RACIST, consciously embracing a racist belief system or ideology.
It’s not an insult when someone – especially a person of color – identifies something you do or say as racist. It’s NOT an insult. Let me say it one more time: it’s not an insult. White people have to stop taking it personally. We need to stop being defensive. We cannot learn and grow and develop if we can’t take constructive criticism. And America will never realize some post-racial [whatever that means] nirvana unless ALL of us are aware of and accountable for the ways in which perceptions about race impact who we are in the world.
The next time someone tells you that a joke is racist. Don’t argue. Shut up and listen. They are not telling you that YOU are INTENTIONALLY being A RACIST. They are saying that you told a joke that perpetuates assumptions and thinking and beliefs and feelings that are racist. Which means you said something or did something which upholds and affirms the whole, mostly unconscious, thought structure that creates a reality in which serious racial disparities of well being continue to exist. If someone tells you that what you’ve said or done is racist and you get angry about that, this is a very clear sign that there is something more for you to learn.
I keep seeing Paula Deen, rich, successful in business and family, famous, beloved, trembling and teary and barely coherent as she tries to apologize again and again. “In my heart…” she says, hands held on her chest, struggling to convey the kindness and impartiality she feels about all peoples. It’s hard to think of another word that would have brought her to her knees like this. “Racist”. Paula Deen is racist. What if she had said, “Yes. Yes I am racist. And I am sorry. And I am ashamed. And I want to learn to be better, because in my heart I know it’s wrong.” And then! And then, imagine if she did! Imagine if she didn’t recoil from the accusation, but took it as a call to learn and do better in the world. And to address the real systemic racial barriers in her own business empire to the advancement of people of color. And used the practices of her own business as a model for the hundreds and thousands of others operating with the same racial imbalances.
So I say: Yes, I am racist, and ask me about the ways I am teaching myself not to be. Yes I am racist and ask me what I read to educate myself about racism. Yes I am racist and I make a point of listening to people of color when they speak. Yes I am racist and I choose to stand in the Target checkout line where the cashier is a young Black man so I can be friendly and respectful to him. Yes I am racist but it doesn’t define how I choose to behave in the world. I get to choose what kind of person I want to be. And what kind of town, state, country, and world I want to live in and my children to grow up in. And that requires me to wrestle with these challenging, triggering issues not just personally, myself or within my home, but more publicly as well.
*with gratitude to @FeministGriote for her comments on a draft of this post. But mostly with gratitude for her fierce, honest and important presence on-line which I’ve been fortunate enough to find and witness and read.
** This post was originally written on July 6th, 2013 when Paula Deen was being held publicly accountable for having admitted using the “n” word in the past.