I Am A Racist. Deal With It.

Saumya Arya Haas admits to — and learns to own — her own prejudices.

We never think we’re the problem.

When a Kentucky church briefly banned interracial couples, the (sad) punchline was that the church leader who pushed for the ban stated ”I am not racist”.

What? How can you ban interracial couples and not recognize or admit that this is a racist action? What reality does this guy live in?

He lives in the same reality the rest of us do: an internal reality.

♦◊♦

In our own stories, we are beleaguered heroes with complicated histories. We seldom see ourselves as the aggressor or oppressor. When we act against other people, we aren’t able to see it in the context of a greater social issue. Our actions seem reasonable. We are not acting out of racism or sexism. We have our reasons.

Sometimes, we are simply outraged by injustice. Other times, what we are most ashamed of in ourselves is what we find the most intolerable in others. So the church leader’s racism, and obliviousness (or disingenuousness) hits close to home. We’re all guilty. When someone sets themselves up with such offensive, unlikeable behavior as I am not racist after clearly demonstrating they are, it’s a magical moment: such a luscious scapegoat just begs to be chased out to the wilderness.

Public shaming is powerful, and sometimes necessary. I believe that the ban was lifted due to public pressure, and that makes me feel good about our country. But when we all fall in line behind the scapegoat, yelling and waving, it starts look like we’re letting it lead us: the hypocrite parade.
It seems that nobody is racist or sexist any more. It has fallen out of fashion as an identity label, but it remains popular as part of identity. The actions abound, but we find another way to explain our intent.

♦◊♦

When we don’t support someone dealing with sexual or other abuse? It’s about the fact that the victim is this-or-that: shifty, crazy, promiscuous, male, troublesome, never-writes-thank-you-notes, whatever. It’s not about the social systems that systematically denigrate and further abuse abuse survivors. But it is. Our personal is hard to see as political. But it is.

“I’m not racist! My best friend is black” is as ridiculous as: “I’m not sexist! My wife is a woman.” Yet we hear it, all the time. We’re the one saying it.

So, I am going to come clean: I am racist. I am sexist. I am prejudiced.

I admit it. I judge, or have judged, people based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, faith, excessive faith, lack of faith…and so on. I make assumptions. I see color. I have ridiculous expectations of men. I have laughed at racist/sexist/otherwise hurtful jokes. I have had reflexive fear-reactions because of how people look. I have judged, justified, injured. I have looked the other way. I am racist.

♦◊♦

My marriage is interracial. My family is mixed-ethnic, inter-faith, multi-linguistic, trans-national. I have lived all over the world. My friends are nationally, ethnically, religiously, economically diverse. People often turn to me when they have questions about those of different faiths or cultures. I’m still racist.

I am a woman and a racial minority. I have been discriminated against and hurt because of my ethnicity and my gender (I am not even going to start on religion). I know how damaging it is, and I do not wish it on anyone. I still have my own prejudices, some of them helped along by my experiences. I’m racist. I’m sexist.

I like to think I’m a good person that tries to help others. I advocate for good cultural manners, pluralism and social equity. I believe that every American should have the same civil rights. I don’t think one person’s belief ought to influence another person’s human rights. But I’m still racist.
I am ashamed of these thoughts and feelings. Some are from my past, others are with me every day. Some are fleeting, some entrenched. I understand that my prejudices do not tell me anything about the group I am prejudiced against. They tell me something about myself. I try to be aware of them so that when they come up I can stop myself from subjecting others to my issues. I’m sure that I fail. I’m sorry for this, and sorry for any pain or harm I cause because of it. I strive to be better.

I engage in interfaith/intergroup and social equity work not only because I have something to teach. I do it because I have something to learn.

♦◊♦

We have to own our prejudice if we are going to deal with it. And we have to deal with it. As a society, as communities, as families, but first and most of all, as ourselves. That is where we have the most control over reality. Know what you are. Admit it. Recognize that it says something about you, not about the group of people you view one way or another. Assess it, change it. Don’t beat yourself up or wallow in guilt. Know you are made up of many parts. But call each what it is.
I believe that one of the reasons we lie is because we wish it were the truth. We lie about who we are because we wish we were something else. Our lies reveal us. Look at the things about yourself you wish were true: I’m not racist.

I’m not racist but my actions are: this is what it means to live in a “post-racial world.” Sorry, but I don’t live in that world. We can call ourselves anything we want. We can tell ourselves anything we want. That doesn’t make it true. I try to live as close to reality as I can; I’d rather endure the worst of myself than be a hypocrite. So, there: I’m racist. But I deal with it.

photo: Losttrekker / flickr

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About Saumya Arya Haas

Saumya Arya Haas is an ALB candidate in Religious Studies at Harvard University. She lives with some challenges due to a Traumatic Brain Injury. Prior to this life-altering injury, she engaged in Interfaith/Intergroup Dialogue and Social Justice work as Director of Headwaters/Delta Interfaith, advising organizations such as The New Orleans Healing Center and Hindu American Seva Communities; her work has taken her everywhere from West Africa to the White House. Saumya is a priestess of both Hinduism and Vodou.

Comments

  1. I appreciate the sentiment in this piece. Most people make decisions in life based on internal heuristics because it’s simply too complicated to sit down and work out all the facets of every problem we face. Unfortunately, many of the heuristics can result in unfair stereotyping when they become generalized to an entire group of individuals, resulting in racist or sexist decisions.

    However, I am also concerned that the reasoning in this piece leads exactly to the kind of barrier to real discussion that was described by Neely Steinberg in “When Feminism Flames” about her attempt engage Amanda Marcotte: that very real disagreements can be explained away as disingenuous “buy in” to social constructs.

    The author posits that the only actual explanation of many of our actions (specifically why we act a certain way towards an abuse survivor) is because of social constructs. This ignores a far more obvious reality: sometimes we act a certain way because we genuinely disagree with what is happening. Like it or not, some people do lie about being abused or attacked, sexually or otherwise. There is nothing wrong with demanding that controls exist to prevent injustice in the face of dishonest accusations.

    The same argument can be made for racism. There are multiple reasons why a policy like affirmative action may be a bad idea, many of which can be tested empirically. Dismissing the opposition as “beholden to social constructs” dehumanizes them, stripping them of their ability to make an objective decision. This prevents the harder argument of “Your points are outweighed by these concerns…” and replaces it with “You do not understand what you are saying because of construct X,” which seems unhelpful.

  2. That you possess some subconscious or barely-conscious bias does not make you racist, at least not in any truly meaningful sense. I would even argue that someone whose non-racist actions have racially-differentiated consequences is not a racist. There’s a vast gulf between the KKK or even everyday hatred interracial marriages, and the stirrings of culturally- and biologically-ingrained biases. I agree that most of us have these, to a greater or lesser extent, but what really matters is whether we fight against them or act on them. Perhaps you are suggesting greater self-examination. In that case, I agree. But I think that what you see in yourself is so vastly different by degree from run-of-the-mill prejudice that it becomes different by kind as well.

  3. I remember taking a cultural anthropology class in college where on the first day, the professor told us that the 2 defining characteristics of any human cultural group are ethnocentrism and xenophobia. People like the people in their group and fear and hate the people outside their group. These feelings are deeply engrained, perhaps biological. I agree that the only way to combat it in ourselves is to name it, be aware of it, and prevent it from influencing our behavior. Also, I think that we have to expand our personal definitions of our “group” to include “outsiders”. MLK did this brilliantly in his “I have a dream” speech by reading the opening lines of the Declaration of Indepenedence and reframing it as a call for racial justice.

  4. Julie Gillis says:

    “In our own stories, we are beleaguered heroes with complicated histories. We seldom see ourselves as the aggressor or oppressor. When we act against other people, we aren’t able to see it in the context of a greater social issue. Our actions seem reasonable. We are not acting out of racism or sexism. We have our reasons.”
    Lovely.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Most of the time, we’re not acting against other people. Sometimes when we make a group judgment, it’s prudential. Jesse Jackson famously said–no doubt regretting it immediately–that he would feel safer in a white neighborhood at night with some locals following than in a black neighborhood. I believe it was Richard Pryor who wondered why it was that the last place a black man wanted to be after dark is on a street named after Martin.
    Neither of these guys are racist in the usual sense, or at least with regard to the hypotheticals under discussion. They’re talking about statistics and what the figures mean to them.
    Racism is acting on racialism, the belief that one race is superior to another. Much of what we call racism today is not based on racialism, but on the presumption that the other party has a winning argument and the accusation of racism is the go-to for getting out of the argument without admitting failure.

  6. Most people don’t use the proper definition of racist. I’ve never once seen the term used correctly on the internet. If you’re clueless, consult the dictionary. Racism is not “judging people on their skin color”. I’m sorry, but that is simply not a valid definition.

    So people, don’t admit to something you are not. Don’t make up definitions of already well-defined words in order to appease white guilt or be politically correct. Just because you don’t approve of interracial marriages doesn’t make you a racist, it makes you a person who doesn’t approve of interracial marriage. There’s no word for that. But if you also are indeed a racist, that’s a separate issue.

    So learn what racism actually is before you admit to it, or accuse others of it. I guarantee you won’t bandy the word about so lightly.

    Oh, and guess what. Even if you ARE a racist, then that doesn’t make you a bad person. Read the definition, its quite benign.

    Am I a racist? Yes, under definition one. I believe that inherent differences that are (genetic) racial, can in fact affect (“determine” is perhaps too strong a term, since it implies its the only factor), cultural achievement. Why? Because if they didn’t there would be a vacuum – the dearth of a sufficiently good explanation for the vast differences in cultural achievement.

    However, I personally don’t draw any conclusions about whether one is superior or not – that is a judgement that each person is making. And, furthermore I never would make the claim that any of this gives one group the “right to rule” another group. Every individual on this planet has the exact same human natural rights. Regardless of their relative intelligence, accomplishments, and abilities.

    If I point out gee well all the major technological discoveries of the modern world came from the Western World, instead of from Africa, and the fact that the average IQ in African peoples is much lower than that of Western peoples, that isn’t racist, its simply identifying a causal factor – the totally naturally occurring distribution of general intelligence in various populations that were genetically isolated and divergent for long periods of time.

    If you, upon hearing that, assume that because one made much technological progress and one didn’t, and you label one as superior and one as inferior, that’s on you. I’m not doing that. Maybe people need to think about why they form these impressions of superior/inferior. And if you think that because “your” culture is more technologically competent, that then gives you some kind of right to rule the bushmen, then you’re a messed up person with control freak tendencies and a big ego to boot.

    If you think dumb people are inferior to smart ones, you’re probably right in certain terms, when it comes to certain abilities, mostly mental and intellectual ones, sure, the dumb may be inferior to the smart. But it doesn’t mean they are any less human…nor deserving of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness just like the smart people are. However, it also doesn’t mean they should be kowtowed to, and given special treatment to insure that despite their inferior intellect, they will have outcomes equal to smart people in all endeavors.

    rac·ism

     [rey-siz-uhm] Show IPA
    noun
    1.
    a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
    2.
    a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
    3.
    hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Apart from the fact that “judgin people by their skin colour” fits neatly into that definition, dictionary definitions aren’t some kind of language specification document anyway: They’re usually arrived at by polling groups of native speakers. They *attempt* to be an accurate reflection of language and the way it is used but the english you hear all around you is the real english. If the word racism is widely being used in a way that contradicts the dictionary by the marjoity of english speakers, its the dictionary thats wrong, not its users.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      I appreciate the sentiment of the article, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I don’t think the opression of racist points of view results in more racism, or it being easier to hide racism, the pastor in question was forced to u-turn, despite his protestations of not being racist. Sure it’d be nice for people to question the ways in which they relate to other people more, but I think thats more a factor of human nature than an anti-racism culture. Humans always have and probably always will act in ways that *they* consider reasonable rather than the ways others do. I don’t think everyone admitting to being a racist would change that.

      Or did I miss the point?

    • How is it remotely necessary to invoke racial differences in explaining “differences in cultural achievement”? I can name a representative civilization roughly corresponding to each of today’s racial categories that is equally as impressive as anything in Europe’s history.

      The research on IQ that you’re talking about doesn’t even indicate significant differences either. How is a divergence of 3 points supposed to account for the vast cultural differences you allude to?

    • Elizabeth T says:

      There is no valid definition with regards to a living language. Racism is “making judgements of a person based upon skin color”. Why is it? Because everyone who lives around here uses the term that way. If you use a term, and the vast majority of your listeners all agree on a definition for that term … than their definition is ‘real’, even if the speaker doesn’t like it.

    • xmaseveeve says:

      So you fall into the first half of category 1.

  7. This article so captures the truth, and I greatly appreciate it. My own racism has always been sort like an unwanted guest in a house, and reading what you said helps me open to it and deal with it. If I can’t accept what is within me, how can I accept what is outside of me?

  8. This article is spot-on. I would go a step further and assert that (save for a few truly divine souls) we’re all not only racist, but sexist, ageist, and otherwise biased and prejudiced in a whole host of ways. We have to acknowledge and deal with this fact.

  9. Interesting opinion article… Those posters who like to use the dictionary need to realize that they provide semantic simplifications. To understand the meaning and definition of a word like ‘racism’ you really have to consult an encyclopedia or even further texts. The author is talking about various kinds of ‘prejudice’ in general and she’s just reminding us to consider our own biases before getting too self-righteous.

    • I disagree. I don’t think it’s self-righteous to stand up to racism. I think that asserting that everyone is racist is self-righteous, implying that anyone genuinely not racist is somehow part of the ‘Hypocrite parade’. This is unfair and illogical.
      The key factor is that the author is not white. She will have had plenty of reason to be racist, I’m sure. (And I’m white.) Interesting discussion.

  10. First of all, great article. Getting past the shame and taboo of admitting to yourself “yikes, whether or not I am really and truly a very nice person I totally do have racist tendencies” is the only thing that lets you confront and therefore overcome those tendencies.
    @JSebastien: Let me play dumb for a minute here and see if I’ve got the gist of your post correctly.
    1. ‘Racism is not “judging people on their skin color”. I’m sorry, but that is simply not a valid definition.’
    Hmmm, let’s check up on your definition here. Definition 1: “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement.”
    So…believing in inherent differences in the cultural or individual achievements of various human races is NOT the same as making a judgment about a person based on their race? It’s just, like, KNOWING that you as a white person (not as a Westerner, a product of privilege or the specifics of your upbringing, an amalgamation of your culture) have different abilities from someone of a different race (not a different social background, education level, or cultural context)? Or is it that you believe that judging someone based on their race is not the same as judging someone based on skin color? (Because, um, usually we determine the race of someone we don’t know by looking at their skin color. Or do you wait until someone introduces themselves as African before saying “Oh, hey, did you know Africans have lower IQs than Westerners?” But don’t worry, we’re still cool, even if the inherent intellectual abilities of everyone who shares a point of genetic origin with you are less than mine”?)
    2. “Just because you don’t approve of interracial marriages doesn’t make you a racist, it makes you a person who doesn’t approve of interracial marriage. There’s no word for that. But if you also are indeed a racist, that’s a separate issue.”
    Clearly you can’t mean to say that disapproving of interracial marriage doesn’t have anything to do with the race of the people involved. But, um, maybe somehow the person who disapproves doesn’t hold “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement” – maybe they just don’t like black people. Which isn’t racist according to your definition as long as it has nothing to do with a judgment of someone’s abilities based on their race. Because using “they are different” as a basis for stating a desire for separation between the races is definitely and totally possible without a value judgment of the culture and/or abilities of the people involved. And such a race-based value judgment can be made without that “belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement,” right? Oh, wait.
    3. “If I point out gee well all the major technological discoveries of the modern world came from the Western World, instead of from Africa, and the fact that the average IQ in African peoples is much lower than that of Western peoples, that isn’t racist, its simply identifying a causal factor – the totally naturally occurring distribution of general intelligence in various populations that were genetically isolated and divergent for long periods of time. If you, upon hearing that, assume that because one made much technological progress and one didn’t, and you label one as superior and one as inferior, that’s on you. I’m not doing that.”
    It’s true, nobody in North Africa invented anything that contributed to modern technology while Westerners were still living in drafty stone huts. Like, I don’t know, algebra.
    And certainly that’s not a racist viewpoint, because you’re not making a sweeping statement about the inherent difference in abilities between Western and African peoples…oh, rats.
    But you’re not judging them, anyway, because it’s just TRUE that Africans are less smart –because Westerners did experiments based on Western standards and Western values, that said so, and we all know that’s not just one system of measurement, it’s the RIGHT one, because we’re just genetically smarter. But don’t worry, we don’t use that as a justification to oppress people any more, not even a little bit. Or anyway YOU don’t, and other people who share your beliefs and value system concerning the discrepancy in achievements between Western and non-Western peoples but use it to make sweeping value judgments that lead them to feel they can determine the fate of entire sections of the global population are just, um, not as thoughtful and compassionate as you.
    4. “If you think dumb people are inferior to smart ones, you’re probably right in certain terms, when it comes to certain abilities, mostly mental and intellectual ones, sure, the dumb may be inferior to the smart. But it doesn’t mean they are any less human…nor deserving of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness just like the smart people are. However, it also doesn’t mean they should be kowtowed to, and given special treatment to insure that despite their inferior intellect, they will have outcomes equal to smart people in all endeavors.”
    So what you’re saying here is that yes, you DO believe that the achievements of entire sections of the globe can be judged based on the color of the skin of that section of the populace, or at least their ethnic origin, and there’s nothing wrong with that because you think they’re still humans too, just stupid ones. And that’s a totally benign stance to have, because you’re not, um, oppressing anybody, you’re just, um, telling me that Africans are stupid and that’s, um, not a problem at all because, um, science says it’s true.
    You’re actually a troll, right? You don’t really believe that your form of racism is totally benign and doesn’t have anything to do with making assumptions about the abilities and intelligence of people you know nothing about based on inherent racial characteristics, right? Please tell me you were just hoping for a little outrage and I fell for it. That would be so much nicer than having to think you really believe there’s nothing wrong with this perspective.

  11. Good article! This is definitely a good first step; honesty, admitting that you’re racist. I’ll look out for the next 11 steps.

  12. PursuitAce says:

    This will be interesting to watch you racists struggle with your racism. What a curse. You have my sympathies.

  13. The best way to combat feelings of racism in ourselves is to call it out in others, and not feel guilty about that. There’s a danger that an attitude of ‘We’re all racist’ suggests that we are complicit in the real effects of racism. Why should we beat ourselves up for that?
    If you wonder whether you are racist, most likely either you are not, or you’re experiencing a change of heart. Embrace it. Speak out against racism, and for humanism.

  14. “Know what you are…Admit it…”

    Brilliant essay!

    I have mixed ancestry in my blood and so does my child…he and his friends have talked openly about other students who show anti-Asian bias…he tries very hard not to hate other people who show their mean racist streaks….he tries to find common ground and tries to get along with other kids….

    At work, I have to speak different languages and try to respect cultural and language differences among the people I meet….I guess it you try to find the best way to help someone then you can overcome those prejudices and biases….

  15. xmaseveeve says:

    Nice post, thank you. Everybody has ‘mixed ancestry’ in their blood. This is what racists don’t understand. They look at physical features, such as skin colour. It’s irrelevant. Human beings are not superior and inferior brands in a supermarket.

  16. In nature there are several thousands of different types of birds, in the ocean there are thousands of types of fish, there are over 264 types of primates and none of them mix their species. I do not consider myself a racist as I do not believe my race is any better than another, but I do think that nature itself shows that species are special within themselves and should not mix.

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