I didn’t know I was racist. That was the big revelation. The piano falling on my head. Notice, I didn’t say that I didn’t know I was a racist. It’s not a noun, where I was a guy yelling slurs and making crude jokes and refusing to serve black and brown people. Plenty of people in my family have done that, I’m sure, along with people I grew up with, but I was different. I was an enlightened, liberal, voter for Kinky Friedman and Barack Obama! No way was I a racist! I have black friends, and I want to be a minister, and I never use the n-word, and I treat all people equally. I don’t see color. No, I was a good, liberal, non-racist white person. People made too big a deal about race, anyway. We just need to move on together! Can’t we get past the past and work to make things better?
And then, someone showed me how racism has evolved from the 1950s to today. Racism didn’t go away. It adapted. A better definition is Howard Winant’s: “the routinized outcome of practices that create or reproduce hierarchical, social structures based on essentialized racial categories.” I read that again and again, and I had to relabel my definition of racism. This is systemic racism, where most everyone polled would say that they are definitely not a racist and that they don’t see color, but where black, brown and native peoples are disproportionately represented in the prison system, the lowest economic brackets and the access points to quality education.
And then I had a black classmate tell me, “You can say that you don’t see color, because you can afford not to. I can never take off my blackness, and this country will always see me as black, no matter how rich or successful I become.”
Crash. Piano. Racist.
My emotions spike just typing that word, because I am not a racist. That doesn’t mean that systemic racism is not a deadly real power in the world, and that I am not an unwitting participant. I benefit from being a white, straight, Christian male in so many invisible and obvious ways. I read all these things and I resisted. I didn’t want to be uncomfortable. I didn’t want to learn about racism. I wanted to feed the hungry and give to the poor. I wanted hope and joy and light and for the world to get better on its own.
I wanted the resurrection, but I didn’t want to go through the crucifixion. But I had to. I had to encounter and embrace my discomfort. I was part of a racist system, simply by being born into it. I was racist, even when I didn’t know it. That sucks. That’s not fair. But neither is oppression of any kind. I had to take a hard look at myself and recognize my role in being silent to the oppression of my neighbors, just because I didn’t want to see color.
Our criminal justice system sees color. Our drug laws see color. Our implicit biases (that every single one of us has, regardless of skin tone) see color.
In refusing to see color, I was a participant in racism. In refusing to engage the discomfort, I was perpetuating the very attitude that allows systemic racism to thrive. That’s the insidiousness of it. I am guilty by association, but I’m not to blame for its construction. I am racist. How could I not be? I was born and raised in the culture, breathed it in with every moment, unrealizing.
But I realize now. I can’t unsee now that I see. I embrace the discomfort, because it’s helping me to be more human. It’s helping me to live out the Second Principle: justice, equity and compassion in my human relations. It wasn’t easy. I had to struggle, wrestle, be vulnerable and be open to uncomfortable truths. I’m so glad I did.