I’m not a racist.
At least, I don’t believe in racism. I think it’s wrong.
However, even though I try not to be, I see that I am racist. Aren’t we all?
Our ancestors living in a cave must have looked with suspicion on dwellers of the next cave down. If not, it would be a common enemy that brought them together. They’d exaggerate every difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’—the same way tribes do today. The more ‘they’ look, sound and smell different, the easier it is to objectify them. Whether it’s Sapiens versus Neanderthal or black versus white, a tribal people’s instinct is to identify and look down upon others.
This is crude and animalistic. It’s natural too. It’s not that we’re born evil or innocent, but that we’re prone to biases, and keep picking up more. They’re a survival mechanism, and they’re barely conscious. Whether it’s about the food you hate, the race you prefer or the class you aspire to, biases are not chosen; they’re inherited. Children mostly like and dislike what their tribe tells them to.
I grew up in England’s West Country, in the 1960s. On our road was a house everyone sniggered at, because there lived, “the two queers.” I made my share of stupid, hurtful jokes. Then, at the bottom of Barton Street, across the railway tracks, you’d encounter all sorts of brown and black people. Everyone (i.e., everyone white) said they preferred to keep to themselves. In our innocent minds, the fact that they rarely came into town had nothing to do with us or how we made them feel. I cringe to remember.
It shocks me as much as you. I’m ashamed. “At least,” I tell myself, “I’m not like that now”—but is that enough? I think not. Have you (if you’re white) ever been with a person of color thinking, “OMG, this is a person of color. Act natural! What if they see me acting differently?”
This isn’t as nasty as believing in racism, but it’s still racism. Imagine how the other person feels. You don’t see them. Choosing to not believe in a perverse political philosophy isn’t enough. It takes committed, ongoing effort to free yourself from unconscious bias.
I’m a mindfulness teacher and biographer. Human beings fascinate and terrify me. While trying to understand, I’ve learned to never judge them by their beliefs; that doesn’t signify much. If you want to know what people are really like, watch how they treat others.
Announcing, “I’m not a racist,” is a denial of your animal instincts. You can rise above it, but if you’re not committed to actively looking for those subconscious triggers, your claim is just a smokescreen.
That active looking is mindfulness. When I notice a different skin color before I notice the actual person, I tell myself, “That’s racism.” There’s subconscious stuff going on in there, screaming for conscious attention—and that’s the way to real change. It’s a learning process. It takes time, and a bit more honesty than you might be comfortable with.
But now, after George Floyd, change is upon us. To make a difference you don’t have to join a political rally or write a confession. Just stop acting like racism’s got nothing to do with you.