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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.