In recent months, “race relations” has been in the news a lot here in America due to “racially-motivated violence”. We’ve seen videos of innocent black citizens gunned down by the police that is supposed to protect them. We’ve seen a community devastated by a terrorist attack that can only be described as pure, premeditated evil. We’ve seen numerous examples of peaceful protests turning ugly, with attendees being beaten, mocked, and abused by government representatives. As these events unfolded, I have for the most part been a spectator. What else could I be? To be sure, I’ve retweeted the requisite amount of condemnation, and penned my own 140-character expressions of grief, but this is a mere echo of a thought, too frail to stand even in aggregate against a tidal wave of injustice. And so for the most part I have remained silent, trying simply to fathom the extent of the twistedness we find ourselves in, and failing, or being distracted, even in that small effort.
Recently, it occurred to me that there is something else I can do. Something that won’t fit in a tweet or be very popular. Something that might be long, hard to deal with, or uncomfortable to read. Something that may or may not connect with any audience. But there is something that can help me, at least, plumb more of the depths of the dark cancer that gnaws at the heart of potential reconciliation in our country. I can talk about my racism. I can talk about what part I play, or have played, in this drama that we’re so shamefully writing as a society.
“Hold on a minute”, everyone who knows me will say. “Isn’t this just some kind of false humility, or publicity stunt, or exercise in link-baiting? You’re the last person I would call a racist!” And indeed, there is much to my credit, both ideologically and in my actions, with regard to love and respect for people of all races and persuasions. I live in San Francisco, arguably the least ideologically-racist city in America. I’m a software developer, working in a field that many like to think of as a meritocracy. I’m a fan of diversity, inclusion, and non-violence. I talk to everyone I meet on the street or in bars or restaurants with respect, regardless of their skin color or social position. I’m what many would consider a radical feminist, acknowledging the unjust system of male domination that has irrevocably shaped the workings of society since the beginnings of society (a system, I would argue, that has deeper and stronger roots even than racism). I lived in Kenya for almost a year, volunteering to help make the lives and prospects of African orphans better. I did my best to learn Swahili so as not to participate in the implicit colonial narrative of a white person in Africa. I became a vegetarian because the children I was with could not afford to eat meat. Ask any of my friends, and they’ll tell you that I’m an all-around bridge-building type of person. So in what crazy possible world would I be counted among “racists”?
Unfortunately, that world is all too actual. Racism is not just about our beliefs, what we would claim, or even our conscious actions. It’s much more often implicit, pre-arranged; it’s in the air we breathe. The world comes to us racist. The structures of society are set up as positive feedback mechanisms, and those of us that benefit by being on the upward spiral can easily go through life without seeing how those benefits are often powered by some form of racism or sexism. This is just the way things are set up. Of course, these structures encourage narratives that can birth a more overt form of racism as well.
I grew up in North-Central Texas, in a small town outside of Dallas. Neither of my parents were from Texas, and we didn’t move there until I was 6, so we didn’t feel very “Texan”, but I soon learned about the centuries-deep furrows that “race” had carved into the social soil. My Junior High and High School were pretty diverse, with (I think) less than 50% White students, and substantial Black and Hispanic populations. It was also highly segregated. Friendships did not easily cross racial boundaries, and while there must have been one or two, I can’t remember specifically any interracial romantic relationships. Neighborhoods were also fairly segregated. My neighborhood (predominantly White) bordered on another neighborhood (predominantly Black). I remember the first time I was driven to a house in that latter, poorer neighborhood. It was made obvious to me through what those around me were saying that this neighborhood was “worse”, that it was dangerous, and that our friends who lived there were surely only doing so because, as poor missionaries, they couldn’t afford to live in a “better” area. Why was the neighborhood worse and dangerous? There may not have been an explicit link, but it was described as being a “Black” neighborhood. As a result, I believe that my first racist feeling was one of fear. Black people were dangerous, and I shouldn’t go to this area on my own.
And so, in my experience, Black people were talked about in general as a “they”. They were a “they” because we didn’t have Black friends, and it allowed us to lump all of these people together in our minds according to this one attribute that they shared: skin color. And again, because we didn’t bother to differentiate between this or that Black person (which we could have done by making friends with Black people, for example), many negative adjectives (“dangerous”, “low class”, “aggressive”) were taken to apply not just to this category of people, but back again to individuals. This is how a stereotype succeeds in its self-sustaining reaction: the two reagents (“white” and “black”) were close enough to combust, but not close enough to forestall a meltdown.
In Junior High, I made a friend on the school bus. We both played trumpet in band, and liked to read books, and we began to sit together on the way to school. He was Black, though, and I soon discovered the awkwardness of enjoying being with him on one hand, and then on the other hand listening to my White friends making fun of him behind his back. Some of it was normal kid stuff that I also suffered—he was a “nerd”, and he had a funny last name that led to the kind of crude and cruel puns junior-highers are known for. I also had to deal with this kind of thing. But some of the mockery was about his appearance, specifically his “huge lips”, which was derogatory code for his being “really Black”. I’m deeply sad to say that, in the face of this kind of social pressure, I increasingly avoided him until we no longer spent any time together. It’s this kind of non-action, not any overt pro-action, that characterizes my racism, and much of the implicit racism in our culture. Did I personally make fun of him? No. I even said (feebly), “Hey, he’s actually pretty cool” one or two times. But at the end of the day, did I disturb the status quo for the sake of a promising geeky friendship? No. And so the train rolls on, and the wheels bite ever deeper into the grooves of the age-old carnival ride we wish we would end.
It’s not just about staying quiet while my friends told racist jokes, or when they laughed about what some “crazy nigger” did, or when they viewed a Black woman as a totally different kind of sex object than a White woman. It wasn’t just how I contributed, because of my own sharp need to be accepted by my peers, to the endemic racism in our society. It was also what I missed out on! How impoverished was I, who could have experienced so many more kinds of relationship in life! But it’s not that simple. By the time you’re a teenager in a society like this, race-driven “culture” has shaped you just as much as latent ideas about race itself. For a few weeks in a row, my family went to a nearby Black church. I’m not sure why. Maybe (let’s be generous) we were moved by a desire to see the unity of the Church crossing racial boundaries. All I can remember is being terrified—the only White kid in a sea of Black people, everyone looking and waving and Hallelujah-ing at me the whole time. I felt embarrassed both by their exuberance and then by my own cultural faux pas of not jumping and raising my hands in praise. Race aside, I found it impossible to connect with the culture of that place. I couldn’t understand or affirm the constant shouting and hand-waving. I couldn’t understand or affirm the expensive suits and showy preaching. And so on. To an introverted geek, it was a cultural nightmare.
Reflecting now, it may also have been exactly the kind of thing that my 14-year-old self needed in order to become a less withdrawn, lonely, and isolated kid, but that ship has sailed. My point is simply that living in a segregated society from early on, and the early whispered conversations about Black people as a “they”, set in motion a force very much like compound interest. By the time I was 14, Black culture was already so ineffable and threatening to me given my own cultural background that from that point on I haven’t really been able to make any Black (that is, culturally “Black”) friends. “I just don’t get the culture”, I’ve heard myself say in the past—this coming from a person who’s traveled the world, lived abroad, and studied many cultures, including in Africa!
But you know, society has conspired to keep me from having to really look at that head-on. I left Texas before my Senior year of High School, and headed to Florida, where the race dialogue was different (and I spoke Spanish, so no problems there). Then on to sunny, perfect, California for college and most of the rest of my subsequent story. I now live in San Francisco, the techno-Mecca where as a society we’ve gotten rid of everyone, like most Black people, who can’t afford to “pay to play” (except for the homeless, who from many citizens’ perspectives just haven’t had the good grace to shuffle on).
It was only recently, when White-on-Black police brutality and terrorism began to surface in the news, that I was turned on to a stream of different voices. Reading the #drivingwhileblack tweets, for example, helped me begin to understand the basic experience of life from a Black perspective, and how different that is from my own. Ultimately, it motivated me to share my own small, ugly story. Just a drop in an overwhelming sea of ugliness, to be sure, but a drop nonetheless. I have no illusions that these confessions or reflections are valid penance, or that penance is even what is necessary. Nor am I writing out of “White man’s guilt” or “White man’s shame”. Nor do I deny that I have been bullied by Black kids while growing up, in situations where it seemed to have been at least partially racially motivated. Racism, as I’ve pointed out many times, is a systemic as well as a personal issue, and it emphatically must be spoken to and about on that systemic level. But I think we have the best chance of facing the systemic issues effectively when we’ve already faced them in our own hearts, and our own bodies, and our own relationships. 20 years ago, with my Black friend on the school bus, I was not able to “speak truth to power”. Today, I might be one small step closer.
I don’t think the conversation in America should be about whether so-and-so is racist, or even asking the question, “am I racist?” I think we need to readily acknowledge that we are racist, and quickly move on from there to ask the harder, more revealing, and more powerful question: “what does my racism look like?”. We need to go from denial to doubt to admission to finally getting our hands dirty with the realities of our individual racisms. The amazing thing is, if we can deal with this, I think we’ll be able to see more clearly how racism is just one species of otherism, the fundamental pushing-away and dehumanizing of those who aren’t “like me”. I think we’ll be more willing to see, then, our own (and society’s) fundamental misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc… I sincerely hope that one day I can live in a world where my own brokenness (as I’ve described above), or the brokenness of the system, or even the brokenness of someone who is doing me wrong, don’t mean that I’m forever closed to the way someone else sees the world. In that scenario, we all lose.
I am not here to heap guilt and condemnation on someone who’s not ready to acknowledge what lies in their own heart. I am here to engage in an act of public confession, hoping that it will lead, not to others’ similar confessions, but to my own redemption. What I’m doing now takes infinitely less courage than to face the murderer of one’s family and say, “Since Jesus forgives you, I also forgive you”. But I hope it is an incremental step in my own journey of becoming more courageous to act and speak in situations where an individual or a system threatens the personhood of one of my fellow human beings, especially when that fellow human being is difficult for me to understand or to love.
The antidote to my—indeed, our—racisms is not for us to become “color-blind”, but rather for us to hear the stories, and acknowledge the realities, of people of all colors, to allow their Otherness to penetrate through the scars of our own wounds and suffocate the worms of fear, guilt, and shame, fertilizing with their decomposition a new soil in our hearts. Only then will we see others with respect, and only then will we be able to be something more than a land void of racism. Then will we enter the promised land that Dr. King foresaw, a land defined not by the absence of hate but by the presence of love.
[Photo: a street in the author’s Texas hometown]
[Edit: Some discussion is happening on Hacker News]