Six years ago I wrote an article called I’m Racist, You’re Racist, Everyone is Racist. Sadly, race relations have grown worse since that post appeared in August 2015. With all that’s going on in our country, and around the world, I thought it would be good to revise and repost that article.
I realize the headline might offend some people but I hope you’ll stay with me to the end of the article and give thought to what I share. Race remains front and center in the United States and it won’t be going away any time soon. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston to George Floyd, as a nation we continue to be confronted by the reality that despite all the strides that have been made since the Civil War, racism is still something we need to wrestle with.
Are We All Racist?
I’ve given this a lot of thought and 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. Think about the least racist person you can imagine. For me that would be Jesus because He loved perfectly. Who is the most racist person you can think of? Hitler comes to mind for me. Now consider this; we all fall somewhere on the spectrum between not racist and completely racist.
Not Racist (Jesus) <================> Completely Racist (Hitler)
Some people are overtly racist, working against people they believe are beneath them for no other reason than they think their race is superior. I believe that group is a small minority of people. Other people don’t try to harm others due to race but still might display attitudes that could be labeled as racist. That’s the category I think most people fall into. Even some people who actively work against racial inequality, such as former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, occasionally display racially insensitive sentiments. For Harris-Perry this happened when she made comments about Mitt Romney’s adopted grandson who is black.
Russell Barrow, my best friend and the best man in my wedding, is black. Russell and I have known each other for more than 40 years. I used to speak to him daily on my drive home from work. I remember when he shared his pride the day after Obama was elected president. He never believed he’d see a black man elected to the highest office in the land. He was surprised I remembered instances where he felt discriminated against when we were together. We talk about racism because I want to understand his perspective. I was shocked, and actually cried, when I learned there was a pool in our hometown where he was not allowed to swim as a kid because he was black. I had no idea until he told me decades later.
I was a member of my former company’s diversity committee and actively helped people of color whenever I could. With people of color I regularly talk about issues around race. I’ve read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste because I want to understand other perspectives. So how can I be racist?
I don’t say I’m racist because of Kendi’s, DiAngelo’s, or Wilkerson’s views on race or their definitions of racism. There’s much I agree with and much I disagree with regarding each of their views on the issue. I say I’m racist because I know this – I’m no Jesus! I’m very aware of my initial internal responses to certain events. I understand many of my thoughts are triggered at the subconscious level, which means before I realize it, the thought, belief, or attitude that could be considered racist is already there. I can try to deny it or rationalize it away but if I’m honest I need to simply admit it’s there. I don’t beat myself up over it because I know many of our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes are a result of decades of conditioning from factors outside of our control.
Looking for Similarity
It’s natural for us to feel a closer bond to people we see as similar to ourselves. Evolutionarily this was a survival necessity. Those who looked and spoke like us were probably friends and those who were different might be enemies. Even though we live in a very different time than our ancestors, a time where people need not be feared just because they are different, we can’t help the brain wiring we acquired at birth. All we can do is acknowledge the beliefs and attitudes that surface, then examine our thoughts and hopefully to make new choices to behave differently.
Another factor is the environment we grew up in. Some of you reading this may have grown up in a mildly or overtly racist home. When that’s all you know that’s your normal. If you believed your parents loved you, and you saw them as good people, then you had no reason to question their views on race or any other topics. The beliefs that were instilled during your formative years die hard.
Apart from your home, if you had little or no exposure to people who were different, then many of your beliefs may have been formed by outside influences such as the media, friends, and your community. An example of this is how criminals are referred to in the media. Muslims are often viewed as terrorists and blacks are labeled thugs, but many whites who commit terrible crimes are deemed mentally ill. Those stereotypes cause us to look at different groups of people 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 views you begin to harbor attitudes and beliefs without really understanding where they came from.
Bringing About Change
Examine beliefs and attitudes. It’s natural to defend your position because, at least for some people, acknowledging a belief or attitude might be racist is tantamount to admitting they’re a bad person. That’s a hard pill to swallow but it’s not necessarily the case. We’re not good or bad, we float back and forth between good and bad thoughts, behaviors, etc.
Initiate conversation. I’ve learned a tremendous amount in my conversations with Russell and other black friends and coworkers. I encourage you to initiate the conversation and 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 share!
Engage liking. During workshops I ask participants, “Does the impact of similarity or liking suggest a retreat from diversity in the workplace?” Some people think looking for similarity might hurt diversity but that would only be the case if you just looked at someone’s exterior. If that’s all you do it would be easy to conclude you’re different solely based on looks. However, the good news is that studies show race and ethnicity differences are overwhelmed when people realize they share the same beliefs, values, and attitudes with one another.
The problems we face won’t go away if we put our heads in the sand. This time is different. We have to open ourselves to trying to understand people who are different from us. We may not agree on everything but the dialogue is likely to move us a little closer rather than apart. That will be a big step in the right direction.
Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach, and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence.
Brian’s first book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was named one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by BookAuthority. His second book, Persuasive Selling for Relationship Driven Insurance Agents, was an Amazon new release bestseller in several categories. His newest book, The Influencer: Secrets to Success and Happiness, will be available by year-end.
Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses on persuasive selling and coaching have been viewed by more than 400,000 people around the world.