I Am a Racist

Years ago I saw a news magazine piece on wealth—more particularly, examining what it took to feel wealthy. A family with a combined annual income of $250,000. Another couple bringing in $1 million a year. Another, $6 million. I’ll jump straight to the conclusion: None of them classified themselves as wealthy. More than any absolute number, what mattered was the point of reference. As long as these people could see others around them having more, they weren’t rich. No matter how high people climb, it seems that “wealth” is what you find on the next rung up.

A lot of things work that way. “Sure, I’m good for a laugh now and then, but I’m no comedian.” “Smart? Good heavens, no—my neighbor is an astrophysicist.” “I mean, I like a clean house but I’m not a clean freak. Now my sister, on the other hand…”

Birth of a Nation, 1915

Birth of a Nation, 1915

I’m starting to think this is a big part of America’s problem with racism. No one will self-label as a racist. I mean, that guy. He’s a racist. I just care about fairness and my heritage. As long as people can point to Birth of a Nation footage of white-sheeted horsemen and grainy photos of men standing at the foot of a hanging tree and say, “I’m not that,” then racists will continue to believe they’re not racist. That the problem is somebody else.

So let’s all take a deep breath and say it together:

I am a racist.

Not in your head. I meant for us to use that deep breath to actually push words out of our chests, up through our vocal chords, and out into the world.

I am a racist.

Hurts, doesn’t it? Kind of like admitting in a marriage that the problem isn’t all your spouse. Like lying in bed at night and knowing that the reason you’re not moving up at work is your inferior work, not others’ bad judgment.

“Hey look, Dad! Michael Jordan!”

We are biologically wired to reject the foreign. Babies familiarize to the faces they see, learn to recognize the differences in those faces, and to lump everything else together as “other.” My 3-year-old grandson, living in a white family, playing with neighborhood white children, mortified his parents when he identified a cartoon black kid in an iPhone commercial as Michael Jordan. He liked Space Jam, you see, and all black males came together as Michael Jordan. My red-headed husband, living in Seoul for a couple of years in the 1970s, was told by Koreans—repeatedly—that they couldn’t tell white people apart. Even with red hair.

So yes, humans are tribal. We cling to our families, to our community of fellow believers, to those with whom we feel comfortable and familiar. Those who speak the same language, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes, and have been part of the world we oriented to as infants.

We are not, however, wired to hate the foreign. Are we stressed and unsettled in the presence of a new situation? Sure. But the utter rejection of it, the wish to destroy or confine it—that’s taught.

City Centre Bahrain shuttle bus

Shuttle Bus, City Centre, Manama Bahrain

While I lived in Saudi Arabia, our shopping bus—full of foreign women returning from the mall, bypassing construction traffic by cutting through a neighborhood—got caught a couple of times passing a school at dismissal time, and was stoned by the boys standing outside the school. Just to be clear, it’s a white bus, a little smaller than a traditional school bus, with darkened and/or curtained windows. That’s all. (Full disclosure: For security reasons I never took a photo of our actual bus–this similar one is a shuttle bus from a mall in Manama, Bahrain.)

That bus was not a rampaging elephant or an armed jeep. It was not barreling toward anyone. The idea to pick up rocks and throw them was not a reflexive, biological reaction to an imminent threat. It was taught. There may not have been a lesson, with flash cards and diagrams (“If the windows are open with arms sticking out, it is a worker bus. Do not stone it. If the windows are closed and darkened, it is a women’s bus. Aim here.”), but the general understanding that foreign women are unclean whores is not a product of these boys’ direct experience. It’s a story used to explain the world—language beneath language, the subtext that glues the rest of the narrative together.

We all have subtext woven into our language, our views, our attitudes. “Implicit bias” is the commonly used term for the racial aspect of it, and it’s complex and fascinating. Next time you have a half hour in the car or on a walk, listen to this episode of Hidden Brain, in which even the scientist who designed the study has to acknowledge her own racial biases.

But subconscious or overt, hidden or open, it’s time to stop putting racism off as somebody else’s problem. If you’re not as racist as other people in your family, that family shaped your narrative of cause and effect and the way the world works, and you’re probably a racist. If the community you grew up in was as predominantly one race as mine was, you’re probably a racist. My fellow-citizens, the overwhelming majority of whom don’t call themselves racists, elected a president they knew to be racist, believing his racism wasn’t a disqualifying problem. That’s racist.

Accepting racism is racist. Refusing to talk about racism is racist. Pushing racism off as a problem that happens in some other segment of society or geography is racist. It’s way past time for white people to stop telling people of other races that we’re not racist, and start talking honestly with each other about how we actually are. Start making it clear that we won’t accept it from each other. In exactly the same way we ask Muslim communities to police themselves for potential radicals, it’s time for polite, don’t-be-political white people to start making it clear that we won’t tolerate racist thinking or expression in our own ranks.

It is only by acknowledging the reality of the problem, by slicing open the tissue and exposing what’s inside to the light that we can begin to kill this festering racism that has made our country so perilously sick. As a nation, we seem agreed about what a raging fever looks like, and think as long as we don’t look like that then we’re fine. As long as someone is sicker, I’m not sick. As long as someone is richer, I’m not rich. As long as someone is more racist, I’m not a racist. But in fact we’ve never been healthy enough to have an accurate point of reference.

Habanera and the Guero, Houston, TX

Habanera and the Guero, Houston, TX

So let me hold up a snapshot, at least: On the night I arrived in Houston, my new home, currently identified as “the most diverse city in America,” we stopped at a restaurant near the airport for dinner. Inside were an Indian family, a young Korean/African-American couple, a large extended Latino family (sorry—my high school Spanish didn’t equip me pick up nationality), and a mixed bunch of teenagers—black, Middle Eastern, Asian, white, Indian. All eating Mexican food.

It was delicious. I promise. You definitely want to be there.

12 thoughts on “I Am a Racist

  1. David Lasiter says:

    I really liked a lot of what you had to say here. You write very well, and certainly did a fantastic job of making it fun, easy to understand and to follow your train of thought.

    I’m afraid I do not agree with the idea that we should all start calling ourselves racist. Yes, of course, we all see the world and the people in it through our own lens, but that does not, according to Webster, make us racist.

    “Racism : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”

    This is NOT the majority of the American people. I would be perfectly fine if we came up with a new term to describe the “Implicit bias” that you mentioned, but taking a word that is as awful and degrading as racist and insisting that, “…white people…actually are.” is down right offensive. Can you truly blame people who react so defensively when told they are racist? This is a dirty word that should be reserved for people who really fit its definition.

    (Just as an added little tidbit of my own beliefs… It is not our skin color that makes us different, it is our choices. It is not our skin color that makes us similar, it is our choices.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • margocatts says:

      Thank you for your kind words, and for taking the time to write! Yes, I was certainly stretching the word purely as a provocation. I don’t believe most people fit the formal definition of “racist,” but I do believe that the term is too easily shrunk so that it seems to conveniently apply only to other people. I believe we would all do well to examine ourselves from within the possibility that we might be racist, rather than only after ruling it out. If someone calls me annoying, it’s a lot more productive to say “in what ways am I annoying?” rather than “in what ways are people wrong who think I’m annoying?” or “who’s the most annoying other person I can think of?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Lasiter says:

        I think we are completely on the same page, all except for the usage of the word racist. The word “annoying” in your example makes perfect sense, but does not compare very well to calling someone racist. A person can not be racist simply because another person views them that way. Racism comes from within, while being annoying is simply a matter of perception. If we replace the word “annoying” with “retarded” you might see what I mean. I am not retarded and thus no matter if someone calls me retarded I need not wonder why he/she thinks it productive to say that I am. (So long as they aren’t using the word as a strange euphemism for the word “stupid.” Because stupid I might actually be and need to work on that. ;P )


      • margocatts says:

        As a grandparent to a special needs child, let me suggest that “retarded” is as loaded a word as “racist,” with the additional burden of having been used to label one group of people and then hurl at others as an insult. We certainly agree that there is nothing to be gained from calling one another racist, but I hope that people will not shy away from asking themselves whether the title applies. No labeling, but just asking, honestly and humbly, without dismissing the possibility out of hand. My (admittedly manipulative) intent is using the term as I did was a response to hearing self-described white supremacists say that they aren’t racist. If a word is consistently being used to describe other people, rather than oneself, it’s time to turn the glass around.


  2. Joyce says:

    I agree ,we are conditioned by families and communities. We can overcome some of our bias by
    getting out of our comfort zone and truly communicate with others. Not by shouting or blaming but honestly listening and asking about their ways of life.


    • margocatts says:

      Thank you! I heard the mother of the woman killed at Charlottesville say we need to pay attention to the anger being expressed by those who marched. They feel unheard, disregarded, displaced, and fearful. They lash out in anger because they aren’t being heard. You put it exactly–more shouting and blaming escalates rather than solves. Everyone wants understanding and respect.


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