Hi, my name is Adam, and I used to be racist. This is my story, and the twist that showed me just how much I’ve changed.
A few years ago, I dated a woman who was pretty radical. She seemed to be cool with talking about anything, taboo or not. She wanted to have real discussions about real things. She was a feminist and a vegan, and right into gender politics and social justice. I really admired all of that, as I was also concerned with these things to a lesser degree.
On our first date, she asked me about something I’d mentioned in passing on my dating profile — that I’d dabbled in the local kink/fetish community. She was genuinely interested in hearing my thoughts about it. That was when I first learned I could be totally honest with her and she appreciated it; she wasn’t freaked out.
So a little while later, I made her play guinea pig by talking about a really touchy subject for the first time.
I confessed to her that I knew I had racial biases. I thought that made me racist. Her response (and the response of several people since) surprised me. She said, “Oh, everyone has racial biases. The fact that you’re aware of it puts you ahead.”
This was three years ago. Eight months ago, I wrote a journal entry on a private website about my thoughts on racial bias at the time. Looking back at it now, and at some of the responses it elicited, I recognize that it’s time for an update. Because racism is very much about perception, and fortunately perception can change — for me it has.
What spurred my desire to revise this post was that just a few weeks ago, I “met” a young (nineteen-year-old) white man on the same private site where I’d written that journal entry. He was complaining about the difficulties of interacting with and getting positive attention from women. I wrote to him privately to tell him that self-awareness and self-analysis are his friends, and he might want to start developing those skills. Then I sent him a few journal posts as examples of self-analysis I’d done. One of them was the post I had written about racial bias, and his response to it boiled down to, “Yeah! F*** the N***ers!”.
Either he had COMPLETELY missed the point, or I had done a TERRIBLE job of making it in the first place.The journal was about biases and why I had them, not about why they were justified.
Here’s a summary: I grew up in a blue collar, conservative, suburban, primarily white city. There had only been a scant few African American children in my classes at school. My family made no overt attempts to socialize me with or expose me to other cultures, and so I was essentially conditioned from birth until high school to think that “white is normal,” and that anything else is a rare exception. My biggest exposures to “Black Culture” were watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show. Small sample size = poor conclusions.
In high school, I had more black classmates, but they were still definitely a clear minority in terms of numbers. And I have to admit; I was not the most open minded, accepting, tolerant person back then. I went around moralizing people, as I’d been raised Catholic and kind of doubled down on the “holier than thou” thing for a little while. I was also a music snob. I was judgmental and closed off. This all to say, I was not forced to interface with non-white kids. And I sure as heck didn’t self-police it.
Things became more difficult when I got to college, because now I had more black classmates than I’d ever had before, and for the first time, I had to actually temper myself. I couldn’t be openly racist anymore; there were too many people who could (and would) do something about it.
I’m ashamed to say, this wasn’t even when I started to smarten up. I honestly don’t even remember a specific turning point, but I’d hazard a guess that it wasn’t until I moved to a bigger, multicultural city, five years ago.
It’s strange and unsettling to go from being the distinct majority, to living in a neighborhood where it’s about even, or where you become an actual minority yourself. It’s a complete power flip, and it really makes you think twice. This is certainly a big part of why openly racist people who live in the same place their entire lives are unlikely to change — because nothing and no one is forcing them to. There is a band called Dredg that has an appropriate song lyric:
I’ll never leave this place, no I’ll never leave this place
I’ll never leave the place where I was born
Because beyond these town limits
Even though I’ve never seen it
There’s really nothing else to explore
There’s nothing more
-Song: “Ireland” off the album “The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion”
That was absolutely how I felt in my hometown. No desire to travel or experience other cultures, just a mentality of, “Everything I need is here, why would I leave?”
In addition to being racist as a teenager, I was also homophobic. Oddly enough, I found it much easier to untie that mental knot than it’s been to unlearn my racial biases. Perhaps because homosexuality isn’t instantly identifiable on the outside? You can’t hide your skin colour so easily.
Anyway, at twenty-four I moved from a sea of white to one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. And through the people I met, I learned my biases were unfounded. I began to acknowledge that I do not think or feel that black people, or any other minority, are inferior or unworthy of my respect and compassion. My new city, and the friends I made, helped me not see race so much as I saw humanity.
While my family and elders may have failed to expose me to other cultures when I was younger, it became 100% my responsibility to deal with this, to fix my perceptions, to unpack my baggage, and to get with the reality program as an adult. And so I have been and continue to.
So when this “kid” stumbled into my path and said what he said, I fired back a long private message to him to try and set him straight, all from personal experience/perspective (“I was once like you, here’s why I’m not anymore.”). Sadly one of his retorts was “The liberal media has gotten to you.” He failed to realize he just inadvertently suggested a correlation between conservatism and racism. He also confused “natural selection” with Imperial Colonialism in one of his other comments.
While I was going back and forth with him, I found 2 great relevant articles on Medium — “Coming out as bi-racial”, and “So, where are you from?”. There is also this great talk by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I tried to send him the Tyson talk but I don’t think he even watched it. He was more insulted that I thought he didn’t know who Neil DeGrasse Tyson was. Great issue avoidance.
But the one thing he said that really concerned me was when I reacted negatively to his open racism. I warned him that he should really try and get over it, and he made a point to say, “Of course I don’t act/speak openly racist in public, I’m not stupid.” And this is part of the problem.
You can be talking to someone in public for hours (weeks, years), and never know how intolerant they are. You may never find out. You may think they are a great person and even recommend them for jobs or as a person one of your friends should date. It is frighteningly easy to keep biases and bigotry secret so that no one really knows. And then you never have to deal with it. And if you slip up, it’s easy to drop a quick apology and move on relatively unscathed.
I think it’s important to talk about (and confess) these things, as once they are out in the public space you have to be accountable for them, which makes you much more likely to actually address them. And part of holding yourself accountable, at least for me, is getting thoughts and feelings out of my head and making sure someone else knows about them.
So – Hi, I’m Adam and I still have racial biases, but I try to act in spite of them as much as possible.