Who is racist?

I was raised by parents who had risen above the racist influences in their lives. My father’s father, born and raised in the Bronx, was a bigot who used words like nigger, kike, wop and spic. My mother grew up in racially-segregated Charleston, South Carolina. But I never heard either of my parents use disparaging terms for minorities. (Negro was considered polite back then.) If I had parroted racial epithets I’d learned from my peers growing up, I’d have been strongly admonished not to do so, if not punished.

I served as a race relations education officer in the Army in the early seventies, leading three-day seminars designed to alleviate racial tensions and conflicts. I was stationed in Germany, and in the year that I led seminars I learned a lot about my own country. I’d read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and bought his assertion that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” of societal racism. I’ve done many things since my Army days to try to be part of the solution and I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a recognizable racial minority, having lived in Jamaica for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ve known many white  folks over the years who would instantly deny having any racist tendencies whatsoever, because they don’t understand the insidious nature of racism. I believe that there are two kinds of racism, which I’ll cover later in this post.

I grew up in a racist society, and to claim that  I was untouched by racism would be ignorant. I learned to be a race relations education officer at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI). There I learned the (now obvious) point that you can’t grow up in a racist society without being influenced to some degree, no matter what your race or ethnic group. I was also taught that guilt is a lousy motivator for changing racial beliefs and attitudes. Racism isn’t an either/or thing, but exists along a continuum. To admit that you have residual, learned racist beliefs or (often unconscious) inclinations doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or, if you’re white, that you should feel guilty for being white.

A Defense Department manual issued by the DRRI to support the race relations education program addressed military commanding officers who earnestly believed that that they were “color blind” or “didn’t have a racist bone in their body.” It suggested that they should discuss with their race relations education officer just how this miracle occurred in our racist society. When I encountered this attitude in race relations seminars, I’d ask with a straight face, “What planet did you grow up on?”

Despite my personal history of self-examination and of actively opposing racism since I was a young man, I can’t claim to be completely free if its taint, myself. It’s not simply a matter of “being ” or “not being” a racist, it’s matter of where you are on the continuum. Everyone belongs somewhere on this continuum, and where you see yourself may not be where others might see you. It’s not just white people who are unconsciously biased along racial lines. While I believe that America is less racist than when I was growing up, we still have a lot that needs to be examined and changed. I believe that there’s less unconscious bias among most millennials, and hope that they will prove to be a watershed generation in healing the scars of racism.

It seems to me that there are two distinct kinds of racists: those who fear and hate people who don’t resemble them racially, and those who harbor unconscious racial bias and stereotypical beliefs. It’s easy to understand why one of the latter would be offended if they thought they were being accused of being one of the former. I’ve known a lot of white people who, because they don’t fear or hate people simply because of the  color of their skin, honestly don’t believe that they’re at all racist. They would feel guilty if they admitted to having any racial bias at all. My parents belonged to this category.

There are a lot of good, well-intentioned white people who are blind to the institutional racism that still exists in our society. As a psychologist, I believe that unconscious bias – not just racial bias – is universal. Nobody has perfect, objective insight into their own beliefs and behavior. The more aware you become of your particular biases, the less they unconsciously affect your behavior.

My first epiphany regarding American racism came when I attended the DRRI. I learned at least as much in the mess hall and in late night discussions in the barracks – with white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American classmates – as I did in the classes we attended. At some point it was as if “the scales fell off my eyes” and I saw that people of color live in a different America than the one I live in. I can only imagine what it might feel like to be a black person who grew up in the South in the Jim Crow era, hearing the phrase “the Land of the Free” in our National Anthem. In high school I’d thought that racist jokes were harmless, but stopped telling them. (My high school was racially segregated until my junior year.) After my epiphany I stopped laughing at them, because I no longer found them funny. Polish jokes (for instance) are only funny if you buy the stereotypical premise that Poles are stupid.

My most recent racial epiphany was my grasp of the concept that race isn’t a biological phenomenon to begin with, but a social construct. All homo sapiens belong to the human race. I’ve long felt that every human being is kin, if you go back far enough. Racism results from learned myths and stereotypes; it’s not innate in our species. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song about racial prejudice for the Broadway production of “South Pacific”: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” (It was considered too controversial and replaced by “My Girl Back Home” in the film version.) We can only shed racial biases when we acknowledge that we have them.

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