Early on, I could tell I was not the sermon’s intended audience. The speaker was discussing very subtle racism, the kind that only deep and careful introspection can uncover. As delicately as possible, she was encouraging the white members of the congregation (which was nearly all of us) to make that introspection, and to consider the unfortunate possibility that—in spite of being good Unitarian Universalists, in spite of a lifetime spent thinking antiracist thoughts—maybe, just maybe, we might find something.
I never know what to do with talks like this, because my own racism just isn’t that subtle. Of course I’m a racist. I was brought up racist, and though I believe I’ve made a lot of progress over the decades, I know I still have a long way to go. I am often disappointed when I spot some new aspect of racism in myself, but I am never shocked.
I grew up in the white working class, in a small factory town surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. My father worked in one of those factories and farmed a small plot of that land; my mother was a housewife. Neither had ever been to college. It was the 1960s, and the civil rights movement was something happening on TV. We didn’t think it had anything to do with us.
The racism of my home and neighborhood wasn’t the hot, boiling-over kind they make movies about, but a room-temperature racism that fit behind a facade of Midwestern niceness: enforcing segregation by law, as they still did in the South, was too heavy-handed, but God must have had His reasons for making us different. Those who hated other races were misguided, but wariness and suspicion were just common sense. Any problem that only affected the black community just didn’t seem serious; surely they must have brought it on themselves somehow. And while it was possible to recognize exceptions to white superiority—as in “I don’t much care for Negroes, but LeRoy is all right”—those exceptions didn’t challenge the rule.
In my neighborhood, kids told racist jokes, using all the words of the genre. If some (not all) of our parents and teachers disapproved, it wasn’t because such talk was hurtful and wrong, but because it was uncouth, like saying ain’t. The point of toning it down wasn’t to be more tolerant, but to avoid sounding like white trash.
From my all-white grade school I progressed to an integrated high school, where I made acquaintance with the few non-whites who were in the college prep courses I took. I, too, practiced Midwestern niceness, but I spurned any overtures of deeper friendship. Already insecure of my own place in the social hierarchy, I wasn’t brave enough to risk adding their baggage to mine.
Eventually, I went to college and then graduate school, and then entered a professional-class world where my entire upbringing (not just the racist parts) was considered benighted. When you change social classes, whether voluntarily or not, everything comes up for renegotiation. Nothing you do or say is exactly right in the new setting, so you have to decide what is or isn’t essential to your identity.
For me, abstract racist ideas were easy to abandon, the associated habits and responses less so. The personal, Bible-based God of my youth had seemed like baggage for a while, and so I wandered through a variety of liberal religions, eventually settling down as a UU.
During that process, though, I never had a “Road to Damascus” moment, where the scales of racism fell from my eyes and I imagined that I might go and sin no more. To me, racism hasn’t been one big thing that could be rejected all at once. Rather, it has been like burrs that have to be picked off of my clothing and out of my hair one by one, and that keep showing up in cuffs and collars long after I think I’ve found the last of them.
Now at the age of 60, I still haven’t found the last of them, and I’ve come to doubt that I ever will. Even after decades marinating in an egalitarian philosophy, and living among a church community in which overt racism is unacceptable, many of my racist instincts remain. My snap judgments of black people continue to be more sweeping and negative than my judgments of similar whites. If a black driver cuts me off in traffic, my anger flashes hotter. If a black clerk or waitress is slow to serve me, I’m less likely to consider the kind of day she’s had and more likely to assume character flaws like laziness or sullen resentment. When I am at my best, I can block these impulses before they lead to regrettable actions. But I haven’t been able to eliminate them.
So as I listen to white UUs who were so well brought up, and whose racism is so subtle that they have only discovered it recently through careful self-examination, I can’t help feeling another unworthy response: jealousy. I have to control an urge to say something cynical and walk away, leaving them to their higher enlightenment.
Instead, let me pass on one lesson my lengthier struggle has taught me. Racism isn’t like a bacterial infection that falls to an intense course of antibiotics and is never seen again. Racism is a chronic condition like hypertension or diabetes. Given proper attention, it need not be debilitating. But once you find it in yourself, don’t expect that you will ever be rid of it.