Imagine a bunch of Italian Americans sitting around a large dining room table with a million different food items spread out in front of them: A big bowl of bread, a giant 10L bottle of olive oil, two different kinds of pasta, a large salad, which no one is eating. A bowl of meatballs, a bigger one of Italian sausage and several pitchers of marinara sauce within arms reach of everyone.
I am at my parent’s house for dinner with the rest of my family. A regular Friday night affair. You might think there would be some Luciano Pavarotti playing in the background, but there isn’t. Instead we are all yelling at each other (read having a conversation). The conversation this time is race and politics.
These types of family discussions can get heated, and there are always a lot of politically incorrect things said. In other words, if you are easily offended you would definitely be set off by these conversations.
Race is a tricky subject. In my family, we reminisce about our Italian grandfather and the words he used. He never dropped the term “colored” from his vocabulary. If he ever talked about a black man he would say, “that colored fella.” Whenever he mentioned “that colored fella” he would clarify with, “he was a good guy.”
It was almost as if the default was any black person was a bad person unless stated. Now, I suppose my grandfather could be excused. He came from another time, and to watch him as a doctor, you would see he treated every person with respect. He took care of people in the same way, and treated people kindly and with generosity no matter their race as far as I could see.
My parents, on the other hand, are pro everything civil rights, and taught me from a young age that race is a cultural distinction and no matter a person’s skin color, they are to be treated with respect and dignity until they give you a reason not to. In other words, a person is judged based on their actions not their skin color.
And these were not just words. My mom volunteered as an art teacher in the inner city. My dad had a football carpool, where he would pick up and drop off his football players in the worst projects of our hometown. No other white parents would venture near those neighborhoods. But my pops did not even blink (not sure he was even aware it was an odd thing for a white man to do).
As a result, many of those kids, now grown men, still come by my parent’s house in Winston-Salem to say hello and eat my Dad’s Italian cooking. I have had several of these old friends confess to me that they never forgot the warmth and acceptance my parents showed them. When they are being really candid with me they will just say “Your parents are the coolest white people I have ever met.” My parents were the model of acceptance of people no matter color or social standing.
But…..after I left my parent’s house that night, I thought about this issue of race further. I thought about my grandfather, and my black friends. My dad and I were hanging with my very close friend, who happens to be black, a few nights before. We spoke a bit about race that night. I wondered if my friend went away thinking, “These people are racist and don’t even realize it.”
My grandfather’s language had bothered me when I was young, but did I believe he was a racist? I wondered if I would be comfortable having this friend, or some of my other black friends, over to the house while my Italian family engaged in this discussion? With all the volatility in recent weeks on the race front, I kept coming back to the thought, “Are we racist?”
After all, the hallmark of a racist is that they often have no idea they are one. The thoughts are so pervasive that they don’t even recognize their glaring prejudice, even though it is glaringly apparent to everyone else.
Certainly volunteering in the inner city, running carpools or having black friends does not rescue from racism. Nor does being black. Being brought up in the south, I have encountered blatant racism that goes both ways.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a constant questioner, who pushes the boundaries of self-awareness and personal growth. As I thought about this question deeply and honestly, I realized something that really bothered me.
I have a confession to make. I am racist. I realize that probably comes as a shock to many people that know me. After all, I come from a liberal, progressive family, and I am a staunch advocate of civil rights for all.
I grew up near a neighborhood called George Town in Winston-Salem, NC which was an almost entirely black neighborhood. I spent my junior high school years with nothing but black friends. I listened to nothing but black music. I dated several black girls. I was even called a “wigger” (a derogatory term that had obvious negative meaning to those using it) by some whites at my school.
I will be honest about my racism. I hate this about myself; it is something I desperately want to change. The first rule of change though is to accept, and own who you are.
So in my normal fashion, I set out to understand why I am racist. This brought me to research in social psychology. I am a research junky, and I indeed found some answers.
By the way, I have some more bad news. The research says you are a racist too (if you love research like I do…I put a sampling of the research articles I read below. Sorry, I rarely read blogs, as I find them too biased, and prefer the actual source.).
I hope my admitting I am, will free you to admit who you are as well.
Yep, I know it is hard to believe, but you are. We all are. The science clearly shows this is the case. Since knowing is half the battle, now we can discuss the other half and how to deal with it.
The social science:
We know an awful lot about what scientists call the “default state” of the human brain. The human brain is primed to judge and assign things and people to categories that are either “like us” or “different from us.” Things that are “familiar” or “foreign.” This is what we do naturally.
This default mechanism is designed to keep us safe. We evolved in a much more uncertain environment than we have today and needed to be able to assess danger and safety. We do this very quickly, and largely outside of our awareness. In other words, it’s mostly unconscious.
So ask yourself this question…and be honest. You are walking down the street in a city. It’s late. You just finished having dinner at a friend’s downtown apartment. Up ahead you see two people walking towards you.
All humans, even big linebacker looking guys like me, are going to be on edge walking down a dark street alone at night. Running into someone else on that street means we are going to evaluate their potential threat almost immediately.
If these two people are a couple holding hands, you may be more at ease. If they are two men you may be much less at ease. What if they are two black men? How would you feel then?
Whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, those two black men are going to be most threatening to you. Some information suggests even a black person alone on the street is going to feel more threatened by two black men? But why?
If you’re white, the black men signal “different” and “potentially dangerous.” But even if you are not white, we are all inundated with cultural narratives with which we grow up. From movies, to media, TV shows and stories we have heard others tell. Perhaps we have our own personal experience to go on.
Most of these narratives put black people, and most particularly, black men at a severe disadvantage. The black man has been portrayed in many of these cultural stories as dangerous, poor, violent, unpredictable, uneducated and more.
Statistics tell us some of these things are facts. Black men are more likely to be from an underprivileged neighborhood, more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to engage in violence and far more likely to be the victim of violence. These are the narratives we hear and grow up with, and some of them are based in truth.
So on that dark street, if we are honest, black men coming towards us, versus white men, is a little more nerve racking. This may even be true for black men themselves, given more black men are victims of crimes perpetrated by other black men.
The entire thing is sad and disgusting. I don’t think any of us would argue that. Yet, it makes complete sense and none of us would want to be without our inborn danger detection systems.
It would be normal to be on guard in general, and whether we are more on guard with two black men or not should not make us hate ourselves, but it should make us question the internal narratives we tell and cause us to pause and think.
Consider this, if you are white: A police officer, to you, represents safety, help, and public service. To a black man, a police officer is another danger signal. I have been educated my whole life on this by my black friends, and it is incredibly difficult for me to see the vast majority of my white friends not understand this. Police, to a black man, equals injustice, prejudice, dishonesty, uncertainty, violence and more.
A cool story:
My mother, who worked as an artist for many years in a downtown neighborhood, has a funny story to tell about this racial dilemma, and the difficulties for white and black people. She was leaving from the back of her building at night, which opens into a hidden alleyway. When she opened the door there were five or six black men right there hanging out, drinking and talking.
My mom was startled and on edge. But my mom is a very different person than most, and was aware enough to see she had also startled these men. She could see that they were just as uncomfortable with her arriving there as she was with them being there.
She said she could see that they did not know what to do, and she could tell that they were all fully aware of the predicament. Five young black men, one older white female. They were equally uncomfortable, because they knew full well how most people in this situation would perceive them.
However, my mother is not most people. So she looked at them and said, “I am sorry. Should I be worried right now?” In other words, she just called attention to the thing everyone was thinking. This broke the ice and the men started laughing and said, “No, no please you’re all good. We are sorry to startle you.”
A simple recognition of prejudice, and an honest confrontation disarmed all involved. Two of the men ended up walking my mother to her car.
What to do about it:
Science does give us some clues about how to beat this issue of prejudice, and it indeed has to do with rewriting our current associations and narratives.
To do that, we first have to admit that we are racist, prejudice assholes to begin with. It is who you are as a human. It is who I am too.
That is our base self. Our scared, un-evolved self. You are programmed to be fearful, and as Donald Trump reminds us, scare people and stir them up with racial rhetoric and the base humans will come out in droves and swear their behavior has nothing to do with racism.
But we also have a higher, more evolved, self. This is the part of us that is not ignorant. The part that sees our fear and questions its illogical nature. This is the part that says, “This person is different from me and I am a little scared. But the truth is, I know nothing about this individual in front of me. Most humans are decent and have the same drives and motives of goodness. I will not let my base-self scare me, and I will treat this person with dignity and respect. If they give me a reason to be afraid I am perfectly capable of protecting myself, but I stand for love, acceptance, kindness and generosity. I will show this person who I am.”
Research also tells us that prejudice derives from cultural perceptions and this natural, evolutionary drive, to fear that which is different. By questioning these cultural narratives and internal drives, we can change ourselves. As we change ourselves, we begin to change the world.
No one ever became less fearful by ignoring their fears. No one ever changed the world by remaining silent. No one ever made a difference in another person’s life without first changing the way they saw that person.
Change yourself and change the world. Yes, I am racist and I am afraid. I am these things because I am human. But I refuse to let fear, and base human programming, turn me into a shitty human. My legacy, and the difference I want to make, is to work every single day to question my prejudice and meet all humans with dignity and respect.
Especially my fellow black man (I call him my fellow black man, because we are all the same color inside). He is my brother, and I will treat him that way. I might be a racist, but I am not a coward, and I know it is me, alone, who has the power to change the world.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21884547 https://www.inverse.com/article/18811-implicit-bias-association-test-white-americans-racist-cure-for-racismhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mind-the-gap/201110/prime-and-prejudice-why-we-are-all-little-bit-racist-0 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11708562http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11708561