Am I a Racist?

Are you sure that’s how it happened? Maybe you’re reading into things.

If they would stop playing the victim and work hard, black people would be just fine.

We didn’t see what happened off camera. He was obviously up to no good.

But what about black-on-black crime?

I have heard a lot of well-meaning white people say these things in recent weeks. These are people who don’t hate black people, and who don’t wish them harm. Many of them genuinely wish them well. But inevitably someone labels their comments as racist, and often that’s the end of the conversation.

If this has happened to you, and you walked away confused about why your comment earned the label “racist,” this post is for you. Because I know you don’t want to hurt people with your words. I know that if there were a safe place to say exactly what you’re thinking, and to ask your questions without censoring yourself, and to understand *why* your comments and questions might be hurtful, you would want to know. (I will explain why the opening statements are hurtful at the end of the post, so stick with me.)

To begin, I will use my own racism as an example. Because yes, my thinking is shaped by racist thoughts and beliefs. Does this make me a bad person? No, it just makes me a human living in a society that is still impacted by a deeply entrenched narrative of black inferiority. You may disagree with that last statement, but I’m not sure how else to explain my racist beliefs, because I have certainly not cultivated them intentionally. And so I have a choice. Either I can choose to confront these beliefs, and work to change my thinking. Or I can continue to deny my racism, and keep unintentionally hurting people with my thoughts, words, and actions.

So let’s dive in…

Black kids aren’t as smart as white kids.

This is a racist thought of mine that I recently uncovered. Of course, the thought didn’t pass through my mind quite so clearly as that. If it had, I would have identified it as racist much sooner. No, racism tends to be more subtle than that, cloaking itself in feelings and intuitions more often than clearly articulated thoughts.

So it was a racist *feeling*, then. The feeling that black kids aren’t as smart as white kids. 

Here’s how I might rationalize a feeling like this to myself:

Obviously *all* white kids aren’t smarter than *all* black kids, I know that. That would be racist. But black kids who live in poverty. It’s not their fault, obviously. They attend under-resourced schools, and they’re dealing with violence in their neighborhoods, and nobody’s reading to them at home. And on top of all that, they’re living with the trauma of slavery in their bodies! I don’t actually mean that poor black kids are *less intelligent* than other kids, they’re just not as good at school. That’s not a racist opinion, it’s just a tragic fact. The data bears it out.

Let’s unpack that. (Realistically, I don’t have time to unpack every racist/condescending idea in the above paragraph, so I will stick to the main assertion for now.) In order to determine whether or not a certain thought or idea or feeling is racist, we need to define our terms. What is a racist idea?

To answer this question, I turn to author and historian Dr. Ibram Kendi. His work has been transformational to my thinking, and he has a particular gift for providing clear and elucidating definitions. Here’s how he defines a racist idea:

“A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”

Kendi, “How to Be an Antiracist,” p. 20

I like Kendi’s definition because it is straightforward, simple, and equal opportunity. Any generalization we make about an entire racial group, whether positive or negative, is racist. Something else to note about his definition is that it doesn’t require hatred or malintent toward the racial group in question. Meaning, I can love black people, I can think kind thoughts toward them, I can want good things for them, and I can simultaneously think that their beliefs/behaviors are inferior to mine. Again, I probably won’t use the word “inferior.” I might say, “If only they would…[treat the police with more respect / work harder in school / stop shooting each other / stop depending on government assistance]…then they would be better off.” This way of thinking is racist, because it views white beliefs/behaviors as superior to black beliefs/behaviors.

Now to get from that simple definition to my slightly-more-complicated racism, we have to acknowledge that there are other categories that I can make generalizations about – e.g. gender, class, ethnicity. And at the intersection of each of those categories and race, we find subcategories of racism. For example, if I make a generalization about all black men, or all white women, that is gender-racism. Or to take the example I started with, to generalize about poor black kids is class-racism, because that group is defined by the intersection of “poverty” (which is a socioeconomic class) and “blackness” (which is a race).

While this might seem like an unnecessary overcomplication of the topic at hand, it’s incredibly important to define because our racism very often hides itself in these subcategories. As I said, it was pretty easy for me to see that the statement “black kids are less intelligent” is racist, but when I added the modifier “poor,” things got fuzzier and my racism was easier to rationalize.

Someone could have explained all of this to me, and I might have been able to see their point. “Ok, yes, I can see how that’s a racist thought.” But the feeling that it was true might still be in me. For me, it took two things to make that racist feeling begin to dissipate.

First, I learned about the history of standardized testing. The IQ test was invented by eugenicists in the early 20th century with the express purpose of demonstrating that Black people were less intelligent than other racial groups. The SAT followed suit shortly thereafter, and thus began the standardized testing industry. (If this feels like a conspiracy theory, please investigate this history for yourself. I’ve cited sources in the resource guide – linked below.)

Second, I read the following passage in How to Be an Antiracist, and allowed myself to imagine a new way of thinking:

“What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from – and not inferior to – the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments?

Kendi, p. 103, emphasis mine

What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? This question illuminated my mind with new possibilities. Suddenly, I saw the brains of poor black children lighting up with the knowledge of their environment. Of course! It makes so much sense! Our knowledge is contextual. Being a middle class white person exposes me to certain kinds of knowledge. There are things that I subconsciously know, and I don’t even know why I know them. I just absorbed them naturally from my environment. My middle class white knowledge isn’t superior to the knowledge of other race-classes, it just happens to be the same knowledge as the people who make the standardized tests. 

A friend recently shared about a test she took that was supposed to measure management skills. But all the examples in the test referred to activities that she knew nothing about (e.g. hunting, fishing). Needless to say, she failed the test, even though she is a naturally gifted manager. The test was measuring the wrong thing.

All of this was to unpack just one of the many racist ideas that (unknowingly) shapes my thinking. Let’s return to the statements from the beginning of the post.

  • Are you sure that’s how it happened? Maybe you’re reading into things.

    Why is this racist? This one is tricky, because on the surface, this isn’t racist. But context is everything here. Because this is something that white people *regularly* say to black people when black people share about painful experiences of racism, the implication is that my (white) interpretation of your story is superior to your (black) interpretation. And if you’re thinking, “I don’t say that regularly,” know that we (white people) do this so unconsciously that we don’t realize we’re doing it. I’ve seen it again and again, and I’ve been guilty of doing it myself. It’s a very natural (white) response to stories of racism, because those stories are so outside of our experience that they don’t easily fit into our worldview without reinterpretation. Instead of feeling shame about this, just try to notice when you do it.

  • If they would stop playing the victim and work hard, black people would be just fine.

    Why is this racist? The implication is that black people are lazier than other racial groups, and their poor behavior is what’s responsible for things like the wealth gap, the unemployment rate, etc.

  • We didn’t see what happened off camera. He was obviously up to no good.

    Why is this racist? This is racist because it starts with the presumption of black criminality. The implication is that if black people would just behave themselves, they wouldn’t get in trouble or get hurt. Again, this is sound reasoning for a white person, because playing by the rules generally works for us. But when we trace this idea back to its origins, we are able to see the absurdity of it. Did enslaved African Americans avoid trouble and pain when they “behaved themselves”? No. Did freed black people in the post-Reconstruction era avoid lynching in the South when they “behaved themselves?” No. During the Civil Rights Movement, did black people who engaged in peaceful protests for their constitutional rights avoid being beaten down by cops? No. So why do we continue to assume white innocence and black guilt when video evidence and every historical precedent points to the opposite? At what point in history did things switch so that “good behavior” provided reliable protection for black people against white violence?

  • But what about black-on-black crime?
    What about it? No, seriously, please pause to consider what point you are trying to make when you bring this up. Here’s the implication, whether you consciously intend it or not: Black people are the most violent of all the racial groups, and it’s not even worth addressing other forms of violence against them until they get their act together. The fact that we so readily accept the narrative of black violence is worthy of a whole post unto itself. Once again, when we trace this idea back to its origins, we can see it for what it is: pure racism. When abolitionists sought to end slavery, this is the message slaveholders (very successfully) popularized: Black people are naturally criminals, and if we free them, there will be utter chaos. They need slavery as a civilizing force. (Today we would replace “slavery” with “prison”.) As it turns out, once we’re willing to look at the data without the racist lens, we see that the correlation is between violence and unemployment, not violence and blackness. (See sources in the resource guide – linked below – for more on this.)

The next time someone calls you a racist, I implore you to take that as an opportunity to learn something. Instead of defaulting to, “I’m not racist! I’m the least racist person there is!” take a deep breath and say this instead: “I’m not sure I understand why that comment was racist. Would you help me see what you’re seeing?” And then – and this next part is critical – open yourself up to what they have to say.

Because these ideas are woven into the fabric of our society, and we absorb them whether we want to or not. The question isn’t, “Do I have racist ideas?” I can safely start with the assumption that I do. The question is, “Do I want to identify those thoughts and change my thinking?” To do this, I have to let go of the shame and fear that so often stands as an obstacle to honest reflection on this topic. Here are two shifts in thinking that have been a great help to me in this regard:

  1. Having racist thoughts doesn’t make you a bad person.

    If “racist = bad” and “not racist = good,” then of course we all want to be “not racist”! This explains why we get so defensive when we think someone is accusing us of racism, and why we put so much energy into proving that we are NOT racist. But imagine that you’re driving on the highway, and your car starts to drift into the adjacent lane, where another vehicle is hidden in your blind spot.. Wouldn’t you *want* the other driver to honk their horn to prevent a collision?

    From Kendi:
    “‘Racist’ is not a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it.”

    (How to Be an Antiracist, p. 9)

  2. “Racist” describes ideas and policies, not people.

    Sometimes we think racist thoughts, and sometimes we engage in racist actions, but that doesn’t make YOU a racist. The upshot of this is that “racism” is not all or nothing – far from it! We are all a mixed bag, and one person can be racist one moment, and antiracist the next. So don’t sweat the label, just seek to be antiracist more often than you are racist and you will be moving in the right direction. (Ok so there are some exceptions to this. I might use the term “racist” to describe a person who knowingly/willingly ascribes to racist ideas, or who chooses to be characterized by an overtly racist ideology. But this is the exception, not the rule. And even then, I find it is almost never helpful to label a person as racist.)

In his last post, Joel suggested that racism isn’t over. I want to suggest that it isn’t over, at least in part, because it still lives in me. It doesn’t define me. It doesn’t make me a bad person. It just makes me a person who is becoming more aware of the ways my racist beliefs hurt others, and who is choosing to actively confront and dismantle those beliefs. Because I don’t want to hurt people anymore. If I am part of the problem, I can be part of the solution.


?????????? ?????? ???? ??: This post is one in a series of conversations developed as a shared initiative between Visible Unity and Body Oak Cliff.  Be sure to check out the attached reflection guide to engage deeper.  See