I’m Julian. I’m a White man. I care about racism.
I grew up in a diverse setting with hippy parents. I went to a crunchy alternative school. I never learned to hate anyone.
But I’m racist.
I got a degree in Sociology from University of California Santa Cruz and learned all about biases and how we are shaped by our culture. I read a lot about fights for equality and minority literature.
But I’m racist.
I got involved in Hip Hop culture. I have friends who are rap producers. I became familiar with the music, style, and dance of Hip Hop culture. I gained a sincere respect and appreciation for the peaceful heart of post-Vietnam Black and Latino community.
But I’m racist.
I have many friends who are people of color. Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern. I’m sensitive to out-group politics of LGBTQ and disabled communities.
But I’m racist.
I will always be racist.
Racism: A Loaded Gun
My father taught me that the first rule of gun safety is that a gun is always loaded. You can take a revolver, break it down to it’s fairly simply parts, put it back together again with no bullets in the room, and it’s still loaded. Why? Because that needs to be the way you think about it so that you never ever make a mistake.
In a similar way I will always be racist. As soon as I assume that I’m not, the focus I must have to fully respect people different from myself diminishes. I may stop listening as closely. I may speak with more confidence than I own. I may not be as open to learning an important lesson. In some ways cultural respect is a muscle that you need to keep in shape. Humility isn’t easy. And when it gets weak you get lazy and the influence and comfort of privilege become stronger.
But I’m also just actually racist too. I assume bad drivers will be old Asians. I assume Black men will be homophobic. I assume Persians are wealthy. No amount of validity to those assumptions makes them any less potentially damaging. Sure, Asian comedians will joke about Asians really being bad drivers. Most stereotypes have a root in reality. But validity does not excuse the potentially negative impact of my assumptions.
Phone Clutchers Anonymous
Regardless of how we were raised, many White people have learned certain internal and external knee-jerk reactions to people who look different than us. A common one is grabbing our belongings more tightly when we see someone from a minority population who looks less affluent. More common is an internal uneasiness. We may have learned this from family or friends. We may have developed fears based on exposure to media or from limited personal experiences.
Many of us have these reactions and aren’t proud of it. We clench our phone and a little voice in our head is nagging us that what we did wasn’t fair. But we very often excuse that behavior as simply taking no chances. Many of us have accepted this fear and tell ourselves that if there is some possibility that the “black kid in the hoodie” is going to rob us that we might as well err on the side of caution.
Or course, that might not directly occur to us in the moment, but none the less it sits there in our mind eating away at our ability to have an unbiased response to people. And many other biases live in us that we simply don’t notice. Biases that affect how we relate to people every day.
Many of us know this, but have no idea what to do about it. How do we change those habits, many of which seem nearly instinctual to us? How do we de-program behavior that has a negative impact on others and limits our experience?
Shedding Your Biases
Yes, they do notice that you squeezed your phone tighter. These behaviors do not go unnoticed. They are a part of the fabric of daily life for people of color. And no matter how much we excuse that behavior as trivial, it very simply is not. Racism does not have to be hate or totally obvious to be hurtful. Fear can be hurtful as well. Fear can lead us to make nearly unconscious decisions that have a very real impact on the lives and opportunities of others.
When I was a teenager I was scared of walking past Black men on a dark street at night. I can’t even say why. Most likely stories of ‘the hood’ told to me by friends mixed with some local news. I might like to think that my behavior wasn’t noticed, or only affected me, but in so many cases (most of the time) that’s not true. Racism is very often more apparent to others than we realize.
So at some point I decided I didn’t want to fear the Black man or make him feel feared. I would see someone walking toward me and literally tell myself that my automatic response wasn’t acceptable. I would think about all the different people someone could be. I would think how I came to have that fear. I would think about my body language and try to relax.
For a long time I still clenched up. Faint thoughts of crossing the street haunted the recesses of my mind. It took me many years to finally rid myself of those reactions. And I know that I had a light case of that fear. For many that fear may never be squashed. For many, including myself, confronting our own racism is a life long process.
A Commitment To Respect
So how have I learned to be less racist? How have I come from being someone literally scared of Black people, to someone who feels embarrassed remembering that part of myself. The answer has a lot to do with why I created this site and how I hope people can benefit from it.
Here are some suggestions that, while a bit obvious, can really help you change parts of yourself you might have thought you couldn’t control.
- Get humble. Learning about your hidden biases, oversights, and ignorance isn’t always easy on the ego. It can challenge some very basic assumptions we have about how the world works. And it can make us feel like we are less sensitive than we thought. Make a decision to put your self-esteem aside on occasion and just listen. And always assume people know more about their culture than you do.
- Really listen. A lot of this might be new to you. You may not have heard a lot about the day to day experience of people different than you. You may not have interrogated your daily experience to find misconceptions. Button line: You can’t do it alone. You can’t understand your privilege without really empathizing with those who don’t have it. And the only way to get there is to acknowledge that you have never had the experience of being a person of color and need to learn from them.
- Read. Aside from hearing right from a person’s mouth, the next best thing is reading about it, which is so easy in the internet age. Many of us have limited opportunities to speak with people from different backgrounds. We might like to have that experience, but don’t know how. So read about it. Read about the personal experiences of people of color. Read about the politics and history of race. Read the work of other white people trying to help you understand.
- Get interested. I can’t begin to summarize the positive impact learning about people different from me has had on my understanding of myself and the world. I’ve been exposed to simple things like new foods, music, and art. But I’ve also learned about new ways of looking at myself and new ways of viewing my community. People with very different viewpoints offer you a chance to rediscover so many things you take for granted. And this discovery and rediscovery can very literally make you a happier person. This curiosity can also lead to a more complete view of the world in which you live.
- Do something about it…
Once you’ve spent some time learning about all this, you should begin to put some of the things you’ve learned into practice. You should also find more opportunities out in the world to learn important lessons you can’t get from an article or video.
Here are some first steps you might take:
- Put yourself in environments where there are more people of color than White people, i.e. street fairs, church services, community meetings, concerts.
- Seek out cultural products and experiences that are unfamiliar, i.e. art, food, music, dance, writing, poetry, architecture, theater.
- Catch yourself making assumptions about people and challenge yourself to respond to them without those biases.
- Pay closer attention to the words and actions of other White people when they are around people of color.
- Ask a person of color, one on one, about their experience of racism.
- Have a conversation with other White people about their biases and fears.
- Share what you’ve learned with other White people.
Just Do Your Best
Really there is no formula to this; no easy way to take responsibility for your privilege and respect people without it. No easy way to unravel your fears and misconceptions. And the point here isn’t that you always feel like a bad person for how you were raised, or the lessons you’ve learned from your community.
The point here is very simply that you want to be fair, and that being fair means learning about the ways that you might not be in certain situations. In other words, it’s about growing and making yourself a more responsible person within your community.
While growth can be challenging, it’s also rewarding in many ways. Treating people right always feels good. Eliminating your fears can be empowering. Learning from people of different cultures can expand your horizons and teach you new things about yourself.
Just get curious, be humble, and know what you will stumble, get back up again, and ultimately become a more culturally savvy and respectful person if you try.