ESSAY #1 – 9.25.20, POSTED 1.29.21

He's a Racist

Sometimes, it seems that the label “racist” gets thrown about too easily producing more resistance and dis-ease, than resolution, in the conversation about race. What would happen if we applied some simple tools to evaluate whether there is racism in our own thoughts and actions?

He’s a Racist (A Few Thoughts for White Guys)

The “R” word
When I hear someone get called a racist, I cringe a little. The word has a lot of punch, and I am not convinced we all share the same definition. It can be difficult for Old White Guys like me to know what is intended when others apply the label, as the meaning has migrated over the years.

I often find that commentators on TV use the term appropriately (according to me) as they tend to be more responsible with their language, knowing the power of words. At times, I find the use of the word by white millennials and others to be a little aggressive and off-putting, like it is coming from some intellectual understanding acquired along the way, but lacking any depth based on actual life experience.

However, we have to talk about racism to move on from where we are. I just don’t think calling people racists is a useful tool for opening minds, overcoming denial, and transforming a society. It’s been forty years since I heard it said that “you can’t cure a society of its sexual inhibitions by taking its clothes off.” By the same token, I don’t think you can cure a society of racism through confrontation, by calling people racists and putting them on the defensive. Yes, there are some exceptions, like with the TV commentators I mentioned above, where labeling a public figure’s behavior is instructive—especially when the public figure has replaced the dog whistle with a French horn.

Either way, hearing the word thrown around can’t help but cause us to ask ourselves, “Am I a racist?” and “What makes someone a racist?”

Understanding racist thoughts
If you see someone of another race and simply notice that they are a different color, does that mean you are racist or have racist tendencies? Although I have met people who would tell you yes, I think the answer is a simple no.

If you go into an appliance store to make a purchase, and available to help you is a white person or a black person, and your inclination is to talk to the white person, does that make you racist? Not necessarily, but let’s break that down a little more.

Thoughts are just thoughts. Thousands of them will flow through your mind every day, and you will relate to a small percentage of them. You don’t pick your thoughts they just come through, based to a great degree on your early life experiences. As children, we don’t pick our parents, our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, our schools, or most of the things that happen to us, and we don’t pick the thought patterns that end up influencing us for the rest of our lives.

This is where it gets tricky. What are you going to do with the thought behind the inclination to talk to the white person rather than the black person? Yes, there was a thought, and it is time to be honest with yourself about that thought—just acknowledging that it was there is hugely important. Now that we see that there was a thought behind the inclination, it’s time to find out if you had that thought, or if that thought had you.

What do you do with those thoughts?
Once, when I was 16, before a high school wrestling match, I was sitting with my teammates on the gym bleachers when the members of the opposing team walked in. My mind registered that they were mostly black kids, and I became concerned, even fearful, that they might have a different sports ethic or be inappropriately hostile. Let’s just say that it was a racist thought—an assignment of ill intent based on color.

My next thought was the realization that my team was 75% black and that any concern I had about the other team was nonsense. I simply disputed the validity of the thought and let it go. I had been with my black teammates for years in a hot room, sweating and stinking together two and a half hours a day. I liked them, I respected them and some of them were much better wrestlers than me, and others, not so much. Essentially, we were all pretty much the same, except for where we lived, type of hair and skin pigment. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that’s when I learned the difference between having a thought and a thought having me. I had a racist thought, but it didn’t have me, and I became free in that moment, for that moment.

So, let’s go back to our example in the appliance store. When you look at the two salespeople, what is the thought behind the inclination to approach the white person? If you know the person from before, if they remind you of someone you know, like a trusted relative or friend, or if they are eight feet closer to you than the black person, it really isn’t worth considering. But if it has anything to do with thinking the white person is more trustworthy, more intelligent, more capable, or more knowledgeable because they are white, or if your thoughts in anyway project any limitation upon or denigrate the black person because of their race, then your inclination is based on a racist thought.

But that doesn’t yet make you a racist. What you do next might.

It’s quite simple at this point. If you have no prior relationship with either of the salespeople, then there is no reason to believe either is going to serve you better. So, just notice what is going on in your mind, and if it is making assumptions that don’t hold up, dispute it and let it go. You can have the thought, but the thought doesn’t have to have you. And then it doesn’t matter who waits on you.

It’s never too late to learn
No one comes into this world with a fully formed personality fleshed out with beliefs and values. Forming happens very early on, and by the time we are in our late teens, most of who we are going to be in life is already set. But even though we will always be looking and listening through a pre-set limited perspective, we still have the ability to learn and to be affected by what we hear and see. We just have to notice what is driving our behavior and see if it reflects who we truly wish to be.

We all have racist thoughts—it’s part of being a human being. We can’t control them, but if we dispute them, they will eventually wane. Having a racist thought doesn’t make you a racist. Acting out a racist thought is racist behavior. If you want to know how many racist behaviors are required to make someone a certified racist, well…I’m sure I should refer you to someone, I just don’t know to whom.

Just give it some thought.