‘You’re not a racist.” The deep male voice had a definitive tone that seemed to leave little room for disagreement. I looked up and saw a fellow parishioner whom I had known for many years.
Ordinarily I would take such a statement as supportive, a defense of my virtue and general good-person-ness. But on this particular morning, he was arguing with me. UU World had just published my essay “Of Course I’m a Racist,” in which I had described the racial climate I was raised in and my only partially successful efforts to overcome its influence. Apparently, my confession was being rejected.
‘Test the average man by asking him to listen to a simple sentence which contains one word with associations to excite his prejudices, fears, or passions—he will fail to understand what you have said and reply by expressing his emotional reaction to the critical word.’ —Aleister Crowley
This was just one of many unanticipated responses I received, either in person or via social media—occasionally from people who know me, but more often by those who don’t. I had always understood that accusing someone of racism would be controversial, but naively assumed that self-accusation would be an exception. I had not, for example, expected my memories of growing up racist in the 1960s in a white working-class neighborhood of a small midwestern town to be interpreted as a broad indictment of the Midwest, small towns, the working class, or whites.
But at least a few people made that interpretation, and took offense.
I am reminded of words from the twentieth-century British mystic Aleister Crowley, a famous self-accuser who sometimes claimed to be the Antichrist: “Test the average man by asking him to listen to a simple sentence which contains one word with associations to excite his prejudices, fears, or passions—he will fail to understand what you have said and reply by expressing his emotional reaction to the critical word.”
Racist and racism fit Crowley’s description better than just about any words I know. Discussing racism is often impossible in the current climate, because the word itself generates so many objections that discussions of experience invariably derail into arguments about language.
Perhaps we are like a tribe newly migrated to the far North, arguing endlessly about our path because we lack sufficiently many words for snow. Racism, I am sometimes told, implies hatred, or political support for racial supremacy, or a belief that certain virtues and vices are racially determined. If those are requirements, then no, I am not a racist.
But let me tell you what racism means to me, how I came to be shaped by it, and how I experience it inside myself day after day.
In the environment that shaped me, “people” implicitly meant “white people.” (To this day, if a joke starts “A guy walks into a bar . . . ” I picture a white guy. I don’t know what color his hair is, or whether he’s tall or short, fat or skinny, but I’m sure he’s white.) Everything I learned about people—how to treat them, what to expect from them, what rights they have—was a lesson about whites. Black people might as well have been a different species entirely.
Of course I learned (from Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner) that all men are created equal . . . but black men? It didn’t follow; the question was still open for discussion. Of course the Golden Rule told me to treat others as I would be treated. But what if the others were black? The answer was not obvious. Yes, all lives matter, but what about black lives? Isn’t that a separate issue?
That upbringing shaped a racial distinction not just in my thoughts and opinions, but far deeper, in my perceptions and instincts. New information, new experiences, and new insights can change thoughts and opinions, but perceptions and instincts are much more stubborn.
For example, I instinctively meet white strangers with a sense of generosity, assuming (until I see evidence otherwise) that they are well-intentioned, trustworthy, and good at their jobs. But an unrecognized black face doesn’t evoke a similar response. So if I just go with my gut reaction and don’t make a conscious correction, I will discriminate.
Conscious correction, however, is always a second-best solution. It appears forced and less than spontaneous, because it is. (Would you rather be met generously, or by someone who has to keep reminding himself to treat you generously?) It also never gets to the heart of the problem. Consciously, I can create rules for myself to handle this situation or that one, with each new offense—and there is always a new offense eventually—leading to a new rule. What I haven’t been able to do is fix the racism that was etched into my preconscious mind.
Having discovered this unappealing truth about myself, what should I do with it? This is another place where conversations about racism often break down. “You’re just trying to make me feel guilty,” I often hear whites say. “What good does that do anybody?” One of my social-media critics put a theological spin on this objection: what I had done, he claimed, was reinvent original sin.
But guilt, I have come to believe, is the wrong way to think about this. Guilt is a proper response to behavior; it motivates us to make amends to the people we have harmed, and to change our future behavior. So when racist instincts and perceptions circumvent my conscious rules and cause some hurtful behavior, I do indeed feel guilty.
But those ingrained flaws themselves are not something I did, they are something that was done to me. For them, I do not feel guilty. I feel damaged.
I don’t see my damage as something I need to be punished for. It’s something for me to recognize and work around as best I can. When I recognize my damage and deal with it strategically, it’s far less likely to cause trouble for myself or others. Unacknowledged damage that constantly needs to be covered up or explained away is far more dangerous.
Seeing my own racism, then, is like any other kind of self-knowledge. Unpleasant, perhaps, but very real. Understanding it better equips me to deal with the reality of my own life.