I am racist. Lord, have mercy on me.
As a white, male person, I certainly feel that there are plenty of “me” out there being vocal and loud about race and police shootings. I try pretty hard not to be “that guy” on social media who always has something to say, who thinks that my view is the definitive voice of reason in a sea of chaos. A lot of times, I think it’s better to be silent and create space for people’s voices who are less often heard or listened to.
At the same time, I also see the need for advocacy, the call to speak up and stand in solidarity. I see my black brothers and sisters on Facebook and elsewhere clamoring for people like me to take a stand.
I’m writing this for them, but to the rest of us – the white people, who feel really uncomfortable, defensive, and freaked out by all this. I’m writing because I relate.
But I also write because I feel that there is something that needs to be said by me and by us who are white, a deep Truth with a capital “t” that is going unsaid for fear of shame or criticism. I believe this because there was a time before I believed in institutional racism, and there was a particular line of thinking that helped me change my mind. Maybe it will help someone else change their mind, and I feel compelled to share it now because it has literally become a life or death situation how we wrap our minds around this issue.
Yes, my title is a little click-bait-y, but I do actually mean it.
I am racist. So are you, actually. I wish I could say it’s okay, but it’s obviously not. It is not okay, but it’s also not our fault. What we choose to do about it is, though. Let me explain.
I am racist.
I believe that all people are created equal, that black and white and brown are all beautiful and beloved children of God, and should be treated with respect and dignity. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a hate-group, and have never committed violence – physical, emotional, verbal or otherwise – against a person because of their race. I hope that anyone and everyone reading this would say the same. Most of you probably are wondering why, then, do I call myself racist?
Most of us, I think, would be able to emphatically say, “I believe all people are equal regardless of race, and I am not a racist,” and pass a lie detector test. When the word “racist” or “racism” gets thrown around, most of us have defined ourselves as definitively not racist based on our beliefs. So when we are confronted with accusations of racism, from the black community, we are immediately defensive, because we do not believe we are racist.
The problem is, I think we’ve come to use the words “racist” and “racism” incorrectly. I don’t think that racism or being “racist” has anything to do with our beliefs, or our actions. Beliefs and actions can come as a result of racism, to be sure.
But I’m starting to think that maybe we need a new word, or to repurpose a word like “bigotry” to mean what most white people mean when they say or hear “racism”. Maybe we’ll create a combination word, “race-bigotry”, since bigotry is not always race-related. We need a new word because when some people say racism, they mean intentional belief and action, and I think what our brothers and sisters are trying to get us to see is something else. So let me try and set the terms up this way for arguments’ sake:
Race-Bigotry: active, intentional hatred and violence against a particular race of people based on the notion they are lesser
Racism: engrained, passive, and/or subconscious assumptions that particular races are lesser which shape our thoughts and behaviors.
If we understand and possibly agree to these terms, maybe we can listen to each other better. Fellow white-people: when a person of color calls you racist, or refers to your actions as racist, or calls the country, the criminal justice system, the police force, or anything else racist, they do not mean that you or the institutions are card-carrying members of a hate-group, who secretly believe in racial cleansing (though these people and groups do still exist.)
What I have come to learn is that racism is within me and you, and especially within systems – revealed not in intentionally held beliefs and actions, but in deep-seated reactions, compulsions, subconscious beliefs and stereotypes that often bubble to the surface despite our better beliefs and judgment. This comes to us as a legacy in a society that is predominately white, in a country that was founded on the backs of slaves, that has routinely stifled the humanity and equality of black people through Jim Crow laws, housing restrictions, educational inequality, and mass incarceration. It doesn’t matter that we weren’t alive for some of that. It is our history, our legacy, and it affects everything about you. The amount of white superheroes on television, white politicians in office, the neighborhood you grew up in that was likely segregated at some point in history to keep others out, the schools you went to that are often charted to avoid particular “neighborhoods”… This is our legacy, and I think if we are honest, we feel it and hear it in our hearts sometimes.
This is the world I was born into, the culture that surrounds me. I can’t escape it. I inherited it. I grew up in Arizona, which has a whole other history of racial tensions with the Mexican community. I knew exactly where “they” lived, just north of a particular street, and I knew without anyone ever really telling me not to drive up there.
All of these cultural forces, from a legacy that I did not choose, have shaped my patterns of thinking whether I like it or not.
And they have shaped my imagination in ways that I despise. I feel ashamed to admit some of these things, but I do it in the hopes that some of you might admit (even just to yourself) you have thought these things too.
Despite all of my better beliefs, I have found myself thinking things that are racist. I work with people who are homeless, which can sometimes be an unsafe line of work. I often encounter new people I have never met before, and I am sad to say that I often catch myself feeling more unsafe with a new person of color than with a white individual. It is almost instinctual, and it is horrible.
I used to work in hipster coffee shops and oftentimes made huge presumptions about what type of customer they would be because of their race. I caught myself being “surprised” when a black customer who didn’t fit the hipster mold ordered a specialty beverage.
I have found myself nervous late at night when a person of color is walking my way. I don’t tend to be a fearful or anxious person, but I’ve even crossed the street a few times to avoid them.
I am not condoning these thoughts. I hate that I did that, and more so I hate that I thought the way that I did. By talking about cultural influences and subconscious, implicit learning, I don’t mean to shift the blame away from myself. I may not be in control of the forces that shaped me, but it is my job to become as aware as possible about those things and retrain myself in the opposite direction. I acknowledge that I am at fault for the way these have bubbled to the surface and caused me to walk across the street, to drive home a different way, to be surprised at a coffee order, or to stand further away from a new person I’m meeting. I am truly sorry, and beg the forgiveness of my brothers and sisters. They did not reflect my beliefs about you, and I hope that I can run with you in the opposite direction against these assumptions.
Which brings us to Terence Crutcher. When we talk about this incident, or any other shooting, we have to talk about it in a way that acknowledges racism and its scary prevalence in our own hearts and imaginations. I am ashamed to say this – but I know because of how I have sometimes reacted instinctually that, if I were a cop, I might be more on edge with a black person than with a white person on the job. In those split second decisions, I wonder sometimes if that same engrained racism that causes me a split-second of fear or prejudgment might be much more problematic in a life-or-death situation. I am certain that for those in law enforcement, if we don’t admit those forces of racism that shape our imaginations, we are in danger of letting them boil to the surface in tragic ways. We are seeing this again and again and again.
When this police officer pulled the trigger, I don’t think she was a race-bigot in the sense that she actively hated black people or believed that he was more deserving of violence than a person of a different race. I believe she was racist in the same way that I have painfully come to find myself racist – being unintentionally more on edge with a person of color than with a person of my own race. (And how much more in Tulsa, where there is an especially horrifying history of violence against the black community.)
However, I do think it is fair to say that she chose a profession where those split second judgments can end or save a life. We NEED to hold our officers to a high-standard of moral judgment. Which is why we need to talk about real racism – the kind that creeps in against our beliefs – that in the moment of peril can cost someone their life, and cost their family a husband, father, and son.
[As an aside, this point is especially clear in the helicopter-angle video. Many have noticed that the officer in the helicopter, hundreds of feet above the scene only able to see the man’s race and size, commented that he looked like “a bad dude”. This officer likely would not identify as a racist, is likely not a KKK member or a bigot. And yet, we are able to clearly hear in that moment these cultural, imbedded notions that a large black man is, from hundreds of feet away, “a bad dude”.)
This is why we can’t “wait for the investigation” to be outraged. The details are not the point. The point is that we know that we were born into racism, and that nobody is admitting it; and by refusing to admit it, innocent young black men end up dead in the streets. No matter what the details are, we heard the racism in the pilot’s voice. We know it’s there, because we know it’s here, in ourselves… if we’re honest.
In training our police officers, we cannot afford to pretend we are “color-blind”. I fear we spent the last 20 or 30 years making sure that none of us were race-bigots, an era that many of us have called “color-blindness”. We saw it and heard it on television. It led many of us to conclude that racism is over. But we simply can’t believe that is true.
Let’s quickly assume that you and I both agree that a black child and a white child who are both born at the same time are equal, and therefore equally likely based on their race to go to jail or not go to jail. We can agree right?
Well, for the past 60 years, black people and white people are not imprisoned at the same rate. Not even close. The black population of the US is around 13%. In prison, it’s 40%.
So ask yourself, why is that? If you keep asking yourself that question, believing that all things should be equal, you can’t get away from systemic racism. If you think that black people commit more crimes, and that’s why, you have to then ask yourself why black people commit more crimes. You might blame it on their parents, or their neighborhoods, but then you have to ask yourself why those families are broken up and why their neighborhoods are so impoverished, or why their schools are less funded, and the list goes on and on and on.
If you believe in equality, you have to believe in institutional racism.
At some point you either have to admit that you don’t actually believe that the color of your skin doesn’t make you more or less, or you have to admit that after being born equal, forces outside of one’s control, the product of hundreds of years of racism and race-bigotry, have come to bear on this individual and changed their life and will continue to shape their lives as many of these institutions persist to this day. There are still laws on the books that target black communities for jail and prison. Black people are still more likely to be arrested, convicted and harshly sentenced than their white counterparts who commit the same crime. And schools are still underfunded, neighborhoods are unrepresented and left to ruin. And this all comes to a crux the moment a police officer, white or black, pulls a trigger or administers a choke-hold that ends the life of a black human being, when such force was truly unnecessary if all things were truly equal.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you. I know it was a lot. I can’t be silent anymore. I don’t write this as though I think anyone has been waiting for my voice, or that my voice is somehow more important or definitive. If anything, if you are reading this, please receive this as a minimal contribution to the conversation, and let me encourage you to move on from reading this by reading something written by a person who experiences the consequences of all this more directly. Listen to our black sisters and brothers, especially you Christians. They have been saying this for a LONG time. If you need a personal recommendation, my friend Delonte Gholston has been writing excellent pieces on Huffington Post. Find them, read them, engage with them. That’s way more important than reading another white male “weigh in”. But for what it’s worth, this white male is saying that I am part of the problem, and the only way that I know how to solve it within myself is to confess it, to God and to everyone I can, and run hard in the opposite direction. If we keep thinking racism is active hatred, we will always call someone else a racist and let our own deep-seeded prejudices go unchecked. (I think this is why Jesus said that people who lust are as bad as adulterers, and people who hate are as bad as murderers .)
So, fellow white-people. Please join in admitting that we are racist, that we inherited an upbringing and a legacy of inequality – that we confess it and will do everything we can to reject it and run in the opposite direction. How much would it fundamentally change the conversation in this country if we all admitted that we are racist? If more white people – liberal, conservative, religious, secular, whatever – to admitted that racism is in our hearts. What if we admitted that we are racist, that we need forgiveness, and we need to change?
For those of us who are Christians, we believe that confession leads to forgiveness and then to healing. And not just for individuals, but for nations too.
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Confession is always the first step. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Heal my heart. Heal our land.