I realize that headline might have offended some readers but I hope you’ll stay with me to the end and give thought to what I share. The subject of race is front and center in the United States now and it will not be going away any time soon. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston, as a nation we’ve been confronted by the reality that despite all the strides that have been made over the last 150 years since the Civil War, racism remains alive and well.
As I’ve given thought to this I’ve come to realize I’m racist. I don’t mean to be offensive but you’re racist, too. If it makes you feel better, everyone is racist. That’s right, because to some degree we’re all racist. For just a moment think about the least racist person you can imagine. For me that person would be Jesus because He loved perfectly and paid the ultimate sacrifice in death. Now quickly think of the most racist person you can. Hitler comes to mind for me. Now consider this; we all fall somewhere on the spectrum between not racist and completely racist.
Not Racist <================> Completely Racist
Jesus <================> Hitler
Some people are overtly racist and knowingly suppress other people they believe are beneath them for no other reason than they believe their race is superior. Many people don’t actively try to harm other’s opportunities because of race but still might display attitudes that could be labeled as racist. Even some people who actively work against racial inequality, such as MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, occasionally display racially insensitive sentiments. For Harris-Perry this happened when she made comments about Mitt Romney’s adopted African-American grandson.
My best friend and best man in my wedding is Russell Barrow, an African-American. Russell have known each other for nearly 40 years and I speak to him almost every day on my drive home from work. Race is sometimes the topic of the day. I clearly remember Russell talking about his pride the day after Obama was elected president.
He never believed he’d see an African-American elected to the highest office in the land. He was surprised I remembered instances where he felt discriminated against when we were hanging out together. We’ve talked about recent incidents that raised the issue of racism (Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, etc.) because I want to understand his perspective.
I sat on my company’s diversity committee and have actively helped people of all ethnic backgrounds whenever I could. With African-American friends I’ve talked about issues of race over lunch and as we’ve traveled. So how can I be racist?
I say I’m racist because I know this – I’m no Jesus! I’m very aware of my response to events and my thoughts. I understand many of my thoughts are triggered at the subconscious level, which means before I can make a conscious choice the thought, belief or attitude that could be considered racist is already there. I can try to deny it or rationalize it but if I’m honest with myself I know it’s there. Why is this? Because many of our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes are a result of factors outside of our control. Consider the following reasons (by no means exhaustive) that contribute to your beliefs and attitudes:
Similarity – It’s natural for us to feel a closer bond to those we view as similar to ourselves. Evolutionarily this was a survival necessity. Those who looked like us were probably friendly and those who were different were to be potentially feared. Even though we live in vastly different times than our ancient ancestors, a time where different looking people need not be feared, we can’t help the brain wiring we already have. All we can do is recognize the beliefs and attitudes that surface but then engage our thinking to make conscious choices to behave differently.
Home Environment – Another factor is the environment we grew up in. Some of you reading this may have grown up in a mildly or an overtly racist home. For you that was normal. If you believed your parents loved you and you saw them as good people you had no reason to question their views on race or any other topics. As you grew and began to interact with different people you were exposed to new viewpoints regarding people who were different from you. Nonetheless, the beliefs that were instilled in you during your formative years die hard.
Media – Apart from your home, the environment you grew up in influences how you think. If you had little or no exposure to people who were different from you then many of your beliefs were formed by what you were exposed to via the media, friends and society at large. Here would be one simple example – how criminals are referred to quite often in the media today. Muslim criminals are terrorists, black criminals are thugs, but many white criminals who commit heinous crimes are mentally ill. What happens is we begin to stereotype those of Middle Eastern descent and blacks so all are looked upon with caution and fear. However, many people look at the white criminal as an outlier, not representative of the race as a whole. When you grow up consistently exposed to these viewpoints you harbor attitudes and beliefs without really understanding how they were formed.
If it’s true that everyone is racist to some degree (just like everyone lies or cheats to some degree), I think we can also agree that not all people are inherently bad. I mentioned earlier I don’t believe most people go out of their way to harm others even though those same people may hold beliefs some would deem racist. In fact, most people are probably unaware that many attitudes they hold would be considered racist.
So what are we to do if we want things to change?
Be open to changing longstanding beliefs and attitudes. It’s natural to want to defend your position because it’s your position and for some people admitting a belief or attitude might be racist is tantamount to admitting they’re a bad person. That’s not necessarily the case.
Don’t shut down the conversation. I’ve learned a tremendous amount in my conversations with Russell and other African-Americans I work with. I would encourage you to ask questions because some people will never bring up the subject. When I’ve initiated conversations I’ve been amazed at how much people have to say.
Engage the principle of liking. During the Principles of Persuasion Workshop I ask participants, “Does the impact of similarity or liking suggest a retreat from diversity in the workplace?” Some people think looking at similarity can hurt diversity but that would only be the case if you only looked at someone’s exterior and concluded you’re different because of how you look. The good news is studies show race and ethnicity are overwhelmed when people realize they share the same beliefs, values and attitudes with one another. After all, it’s easy to engage with someone we see as similar to ourselves because we like people who cheer for the same team, went to the same school, have the same pet, as we do, etc.
I know I was taking a risk writing about this subject but that’s okay. The problems we face won’t go away if we continue to avoid talking about them and if we’re not open to trying to understand another’s viewpoint. We may not agree on everything discussed but in the process we’re very likely to mover a little closer to each other and that will be a good first step.