Confessions of a Former Racist

sunrise over clouds

[Recent events in our nation have brought discussions of race to the forefront, and I feel compelled to share my own experiences with racism. I do not write without trepidation; apart from my wife, I have never discussed these issues with anyone. Some of you will be disheartened or even disgusted by parts of this post. In spite of this, and even because of this, I think it is an important discussion to have. A problem cannot be addressed if we are afraid to talk about it.]

This is not an interview nor a guest post; the former racist is me.

Consider this statement: racists are not (necessarily) bad people. A liberal, progressive city-dweller—and I currently count myself among this group— might find it difficult to accept. But I assure you that it is true, because I used to be one of them.

My aim is not to make excuses, nor convince you that my former views were somehow acceptable. Rather, I want to explore how someone might come to hold racists views, describe how that mindset can change, and explain why I have hope for the future in regard to racism.

North of the Mason-Dixon line

All racists are not the same, and all racism is not the same. Certainly more and less overt forms of racism exist throughout our country and the world. I can only convey my experience with racism as a white child growing up in rural Pennsylvania.

When you consider the geography of racism in the United States, Pennsylvania may not be the first state that comes to mind. But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it ranks fifth in the nation for number of hate groups—a fact confirmed by personal and anecdotal experience.

“Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle.” A snarky stereotype of the Keystone State, but with elements of truth in it.

Obviously not every individual who lives in rural Pennsylvania is racist. I know scores of wonderful people, including family and close friends, who live in these areas and hold no racist views. But when endemic racism persists for generations, it can permeate the minds of those who do not think of themselves as racist. I count my family among this group.

Casual racism

In my adult life, I have spoken to friends and acquaintances who claim to have never experienced racism. It seems to me that their views are heavily (and unsurprisingly) influenced by racism’s portrayal by the media and in movies and television. They might think of racists as stereotypical white supremacists, marching with confederate flags, spewing hateful speech and acting ugly. While this type of blatant racism exists, it is not the one with which I am most familiar.

What form of racism am I talking about?

Let’s call it “casual racism.” Casual is not meant to minimize its significance, but rather to describe the manner in which racism can become part of the background hum of existence. It was not an important part of my everyday life, nor a frequently discussed one. It hovered beneath the surface most of the time, only rearing its ugly head when the opportunity arose.

Once racists ideas have burrowed their way into one’s worldview, they manifest themselves in thoughts, speech, and actions. Here a few specific examples of sentiments that I remember being expressed or thinking myself in the past:

Did you know he/she is dating a black man/woman?


Why do “they” have to dress/talk/act like that?


How do so many “orientals” get into college?

I could go on, but I imagine you get the idea.

I was no stranger to more explicit forms of racism. It was not uncommon to hear the n-word spoken without hesitation during my childhood. My grandmother even used it on several occasions, and I remember being shocked by how easily she seemed to insert it into conversation. Neither I nor my parents and siblings ever used that word, although I’m not sure that our more implicit, “causal” racism was any less despicable.

chicago reflections

My former self, the stranger

Although I recall holding racist views, it is difficult to remember how I came to hold them, and what rationale I could have possibly used to justify them. I believe two interconnected factors are instrumental in the development of racist attitudes:

  1. Ignorance
  2. Acceptance

By ignorance, I mean lack of exposure to people of color and to alternative points of view. The census bureau tells me that my former county is 95% white. My small public high school contained five hundred students, all of them white. Diversity in my hometown meant you had friends that attended both the German Catholic Church and the Irish Catholic Church. I never personally knew someone of color until I entered college at the age of eighteen.

I did not just decide to become racist one day at the age of five. My parents and peer group never “taught” me to be racist. Subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) cues in their speech and actions influenced my own thoughts over a period of years. When everyone important in your world holds certain views, you accept those views as the nature of the world.

Categorizing individuals based on skin color—even if no negative words are spoken—implants the idea that some important underlying difference exists. As a child, different can be frightening. When interacting with a person of color, the dominant emotion I remember feeling was not hate or disdain, but apprehension. What if they felt the same way about me? This is not an attitude conducive for meaningful interaction and lasting friendship.

A mind can change

Movement away from my racists views began in earnest starting in college. The process was slow, but inevitable and permanent.

It came down to one simple fact: I was no longer surrounded by other racists.

Critically, no one from my hometown attended my college, and my freshman dorm housed students from around the country and world. Black, White, Asian, and Latino students were my neighbors, and near-constant interactions were inevitable. But I was not so naive and sheltered to believe that others were likely to share my views on race, so I kept them to myself.

Over time, however, I formed friendships with most of my dorm-mates, and still keep in touch with some of them to this day. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment or individual that flipped the racism switch in my mind but, at the end of four years, I could no longer identify those views inside myself. Instead of discomfort around people of color, I now felt discomfort when a racist sentiment was expressed.

My then-girlfriend, now-wife also played a part in changing my mind on race. She is an extrovert and social butterfly, and I was in awe of the ease with which she could become friends with just about anyone. Although she did not realize it at the time, she helped me overcome both my inherent social awkwardness and my unwarranted trepidation in befriending people of color.

Am I still racist?

In a word: no. But the full truth is rarely a one-word answer.

I no longer consciously hold any racist views, as far as I can tell. I live in a vibrant, multicultural city with friends of different races and ethnicities.

But I still wonder if the mental scars from my racist upbringing might be permanent. Are unconscious biases affecting my decisions in subtle ways? More frighteningly, am I passing these biases on to my children? I wish I had definitive answers to these questions, but I suspect I never will.

ball pit


My parents still live in my old hometown. Visiting them over the last twenty years, I have noticed an increase in racial diversity and an encouraging change in attitude of many who live there—especially among the younger generation. I believe these two changes—diversity and attitude—are directly related.

Some of the increase in diversity is virtual, in the form of increased internet connectivity and social media interaction. Thanks to this, kids are more in touch than ever to views and opinions divergent from their own. The world will only become more connected in the future.

If racism has a cure, it is rooted in familiarity. When people of different skin color are part of your everyday life, especially in childhood, diversity becomes normal and boring. In this case, boring is good. We should aim to replace the normalization of racist, divisive attitudes that I experienced in childhood with the normalization of a diverse, multicultural society.

While the end result of my experience with racism was acceptable, it was far from ideal. A much more desirable path would be to quell racist attitudes before they have a chance to develop. Slowly but surely, I believe this is occurring in my former corner of the country.

As for those who already hold racist views, hope is not lost. I know from experience that a radical change in these views is possible.

What are your experiences with racism? Do you see a change in attitude with the current generation of young people?


8 Replies to “Confessions of a Former Racist”

  1. Courageous post. I appreciate you taking on such a difficult topic with such honesty. I’ve been working on a post/letter to my kids about this topic (although I still have a lot of work to do on it).

    I recently heard a quote on NPR that I absolutely love: “prejudice doesn’t survive familiarity.” I couldn’t agree more and your experience speaks to that.

    I think ‘casual racism’ is a very appropriate term and would argue that the vast majority of racism is of the casual variety, often by individuals who don’t consider it racist at all.

    I remember having a very enlightening conversation during my graduate studies surrounding racism, sexism, and homophobia. One of the realizations I had during that conversation was that I unconsciously saw white as “normal”. When I looked through a magazine, I was completely oblivious to the fact that every single person in the magazine was white. To me it was just a “normal magazine”, but had it been filled with all black models, I would have seen it differently. It was a form of “casual racism” that I wasn’t even aware of, but was grateful it was pointed out and have since challenged my notion of what “normal” is.

    Again, I really appreciate the candor and think it is through discussing this issue openly that we’ll actually be able to start healing the wounds that exist.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, MSF. I almost didn’t publish this post after writing it. To be honest, I was ashamed, but I feel relieved in many ways to get it off my chest.

      I don’t think that experiences like mine are all that rare in many parts of this country, rural or otherwise, and it would fantastic if just one person decides to reexamine racists views after reading something like this.

      That’s a fascinating story about the “normal” white magazine. Challenging norms and conventions is critical for change. I wonder if the tables are turned in a place like India or China, in which white individuals would be in the minority.

      Many, many thanks for taking the time to read and absorb what I had to say. I’d love to see the letter to your children when it is finished.

      Dr. C

    2. I have an opposite experience. I was a young and naive resident coming for the first time to the USA for AFIP. I was thrilled to get a room fairly close by the military base although it was in a black neighborhood. No big deal right? Well, I have been shocked to see how black people lived and behaved and have been victim of blatant racism from their side. This experienced has forever changed the way in which I see black people. I come from a poor country, but even though we were poor, everybody did their best to be clean and polite. Growing up, I remember no rudeness or unsolicited violence form random strangers on the street. I was happy, safe and innocent. My stay in Washington DC has been a huge shock.

      1. Sorry to head about your experience, Mai. Viewing life through the lens of race can be hurtful and dehumanizing. The shameful history of slavery and racism in this country exacerbates the problem in many ways.

        As I alluded to in my post, racism can take many forms. I’m no expert, but I suspect it is often heavily influenced by who holds the majority in a given country, city, or neighborhood. One hopes that just being exposed to people of different races and backgrounds will open the mind a bit, and help begin the move away from racist views.

  2. Self awareness is the first step. That’s the only way to improve yourself. Over the years I’ve noticed many character flaws in my relatives, parents, and friends. I have hoped not to replicate the bad ones in my own self, and I hope that my friends and family continue to point out my own flaws.


    1. It can be so difficult to see one’s own flaws. In much of life, like in the case of my experience with racism, they can only see them in retrospect. Character is a work in progress, I think, rather than something carved from stone in one’s childhood.

      Thanks for reading!
      Dr. C

  3. I’m proud of your for writing this post. It couldn’t have been easy to write or publish. I appreciate the self-reflection in trying to understand how someone would come to have racist viewpoints. I agree with your assessment that racists aren’t necessarily bad people. I find them to be more “inexperienced,” with a limited world view. Even when I was a child I thought this. I’m glad you’re being conscious about what kinds of opinions your kids might pick up. Because like you said, racist attitudes aren’t something you’re born with; they’re learned.

    Curious–did you read my post about my name? Wondering what kind of thoughts it might have stirred up for you.

    1. I was in the process of formulating this post when I first read your post and, frankly, reading your story made me feel pretty shitty. I’m truly sorry you had those experiences, and that the after effects linger to this day. I know it would not have been easy for a person of color to live in my hometown 20 years ago. Kids can be cruel, and racism makes it that much worse.

      I knew my post would alienate and upset some people. It’s hard enough to convince a friend or family member of your sincere change of heart in regard to racism, let alone convince a blog post reader. These days, the emotion I feel the most when I recollect my former racist thoughts and deeds is shame. I will never comprehend how those on the receiving end of racism feel.

      This will sound corny, but bear with me. I read a book to my son that talks about “happy buckets.” When we fill up each other’s happy buckets with our good words and deeds, we also fill up our own. But if we try to steal happiness from others with our mean words and deeds, it empties our own buckets as well as theirs.

      I hope my children understand that racist words and deeds are an analogous lose-lose situation. The target of racism obviously suffers the most, but those that inflict the pain of racism are doing damage to their own psyches. More importantly, they are losing out on valuable and meaningful relationships with those of different races and ethnicities. My greatest hope for my children is that when they grow up, they just think of people as people, not as a skin color.

      Thanks so much for your post, and for your kind comments. They are much, much appreciated.

      Dr. C

      p.s. I’d love to learn what your real name is someday 🙂

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