ESSAY #5 – 10.3.20, POSTED 1.29.21

Who's In Denial?

We all recoil when someone claims that we are in denial about racism, but when it happens, rather than becoming defensive, it might be a good idea to become curious. What might happen if we begin to look at those unspoken, unexamined thoughts that pass through so quickly, we don’t even know they are there?

Who’s in Denial?When I hear black people say that white people are in denial about racism, I feel like I’m in one of those no-win situations where anything I say will be heard as wrong. I was born in the 1950s I’ve never owned slaves, and it is not my job to ensure that black people get everything they want. I’m just living my life, struggling to get by—I have bills like everyone else—and I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Besides, what the hell does that mean, “denial”? I haven’t denied anyone anything.

A loaded word

Denial. It’s one of those loaded words that generates fear in anyone who hears it. If someone says you are in denial, there is nothing you can say to defend yourself, and yet defending oneself is all anyone wants to do when accused of denial. Beyond the initial reaction to what is experienced as an attack on one’s virtue, there is a lot of confusion as to what is actually meant by denial. There is the psychological definition, but for this moment, we will leave that to the professionals. I read something recently that broke climate deniers into three different categories, each one more nuanced than the one before it. The word presents such a quagmire of possibilities, it becomes impossible to navigate, and thus likely impossible to go beyond.

Let’s see if we can break it down, and try to grasp why both black people and white people are so frustrated: Black people are frustrated by the denial they see in white people, while white people are frustrated because they really do care, and it doesn’t feel good to be blamed for something they can’t do anything about. See the rub?

Most black people are coming from the place of having experienced institutional racism all their lives (to the point of sometimes imagining it even when it wasn’t happening), while white people haven’t had to experience that. And though many white people know that this is going on, and are angered by it, it still isn’t happening to them—it lacks the urgency and significance of a direct, personal experience. Never in my life have I had a white person tell me, “I was minding my own business, going just six miles over the speed limit, when I was stopped by the police. They pulled me out of my car, frisked me, cuffed me, and questioned me for 45 minutes before letting me go. It was a clear case of DWW: Driving While White.”

“So, that’s still not my fault,” you say. “I didn’t create that system and I’m not responsible for the behavior of others.” No, and no one is saying you are. It is more subtle than that, and I want to suggest that you are not doing anything “wrong” at all—you are just unaware of how your life circumstances contribute to the problem. 
 I think this is what it comes down to:

1. We can’t fully deal with systemic racism (racism in our churches, school boards, city governments, justice system, legislation, policies, cultural behaviors, etc.) until enough of the white population can see it in themselves.

2. We can’t, as individuals, deal with our own racial thoughts, preferences, and tendencies until we can admit that they are there, in the background of our minds, helping us evaluate our worlds and daily events. You don’t have to declare yourself guilty of anything, judge or shame yourself or anyone else, or do penance. You just have to see what is happening in your own mind and let it go.


Let me give you some examples of racial thoughts, preferences, and tendencies. Have you ever heard a news report about a shooting happening somewhere, listened intently until you heard it was in a black neighborhood, and then immediately lost interest? Or perhaps you were listening to a radio program on real estate and you heard a voice that you identified as having an African-American accent, and determined that the program had nothing to offer you. Or maybe you saw a gifted black athlete on TV, and you made the assumption that if they didn’t have their sport, they would have nothing worthwhile to do or say.

You don’t have to limit yourself to these examples—you know what I am talking about. This is where you have to have a high degree of integrity with yourself, looking at how your mind works. The question is really this: Does your mind ever produce thoughts that dismiss, denigrate, or ignore people because of their race, ethnicity, or skin color? And if it does, do you find yourself believing them and acting accordingly?

“Yeah, but even if I had those thoughts, does that make me a racist?” No, but it means that you are experiencing life through a limited lens that makes it difficult for you to see the patterns in your thinking. It also makes it difficult for you to appreciate the experiencing of our black brothers and sisters. Not seeing the patterns adds up to not seeing the behaviors they produce and how they may diminish others, in your mind and in your actions or inactions. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you—it simply means you are a human being. It also means you can do something about it by just seeing it.

But remember, first slavery, then Jim Crow, and now more subtle forms of discrimination were all created by a few people, and then allowed to survive by the subtle acceptance of hordes of other very caring, normal human beings.

Tearing down the fortress

It isn’t necessary or possible to eliminate all prejudiced, bigoted, or racist thoughts from the minds of all human beings. It is not going to happen because that is not how human beings are wired. It is possible for you and any other interested individual to examine your inner workings and see the subtle play of discrimination forming in the mind. When enough of us see, systemic racism will lose its hold.

As long as we deny that we have racist thoughts, and continue to build a fortress against seeing our own denial, it will be harder to move forward. You didn’t plant the denial there, and it’s not your fault that it is there, but only you can give it safe haven in your fortress, or see it clearly enough to encourage its departure. You don’t need to do anything dramatic or come up with something to replace it—just look and see what is there.

When it comes down to it, I don’t know for sure what black people are saying when they talk about denial. But this is my best guess.

Just give it some thought.