[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.
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.
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:
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.
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?