I stand against racism. I am an Anti-Racist.
I am also an ashamed racist.
To be clear, I am not ashamed of the color of my skin; I am ashamed that I have believed things, thought things, said things, and done things to perpetuate racism, generally outside my awareness but absolutely within my responsibility. I catch myself doing it to this day, and choose to confront my behavior to be less racist, because I am an Anti-Racist.
To be clear, I am not ashamed of the color of my ancestors’ skin; I am ashamed at the systemic injustice favoring white people and marginalizing, discriminating against, and brutalizing black-skinned and brown-skinned people my ancestors and my nation have cultivated for generations. I catch others doing it to this day, and choose to confront their behavior to be less racist, because I am an Anti-Racist.
When I allow generalities about an ethnic group to influence how I judge an individual, and allow my experience to construct assumptions about a person who doesn’t look like me, I am a racist. It’s not just a binary label like an on/off switch, it’s a sliding scale. And I’m working to slide toward the low end of racism, because I am an Anti-Racist.
As a white male in the United States of America I’m legally and institutionally privileged to hold racist ideology, but that doesn’t make it right. As a member of the human race I easily develop subconscious racist assumptions, but that doesn’t relieve my guilt or social obligation to challenge and correct them. And as a man of faith I believe my sin of racism is forgivable, but that doesn’t mean Jesus condones my behavior or that I’m following his example when I ignorantly or willfully exercise my self-centeredness.
That’s what racism is, I believe: self-centeredly defending my comfort against unfamiliar people. There’s a part of my brain genetically wired to protect my comfort, and when I see something unfamiliar it often appears suspicious; when I encounter something unusual I often categorize it as a threat. So when a black stranger drives through my predominantly white neighborhood, I am more likely to consider them a threat than a white stranger even when the black stranger committed no crime—just because they look different. That difference can make me, the white resident, defensive of my comfort, which can result in confronting the black stranger exclusively because of their skin color. This self-centeredness, defending my comfort over that black person’s freedom to drive through my neighborhood unmolested, is called racism.
When that black person forgets to put both hands on the wheel as the police officer in charge of serving and protecting my white neighborhood approaches the vehicle, forgets to ask permission to reach for their wallet, forgets to keep their voice low and steady, forgets to use respectful language, they’re more likely to make that police officer feel uncomfortable than if a white driver forgot. This can lead to an escalated confrontation, like the driver getting shot to death over nothing more than that officer’s discomfort. The self-centeredness of this police officer, defending their comfort over that black person’s right to put their hands where they want, or to reach for their wallet before asking permission, or to use a raised voice, or to use language consistent with hundreds of years of white authorities’ abuse, is called racism.
If the rule applies to my friend because his skin is black but not to me because my skin is white, that’s called racism. Those rules can be any rules. From family rules like someone’s dad telling her, “You bring home a nice white boy,” to operating procedures like a well-intentioned white real estate agent deferring black homebuyers to his black colleague who can “speak their lingo,” to New York police’s original stop-and-frisk policy revised for its lack of accountability and documented racial targeting and abuse of young black men—the vast majority of them, several hundred thousand, found innocent—all of those are called racism.
When I hear childhood stories from my black friends about their parents constantly warning them not to run in public, to always carry receipts for their purchases, to always carry their drivers licenses whether they’re in the car or not, and to take off their hat in certain neighborhoods, it sounds strange to me. “Why?” I ask. When my black friends tell me it’s to keep from getting detained, arrested, or shot by police or white citizens, I feel uncomfortable. In self-centeredness I might quietly file that discomfort away in my Deliberate Ignorance box; I might defend the society or the police officers who detain, arrest, or shoot black children for any reason, specifically the above infractions—“They must have been doing SOMETHING, right?”; I might tell my black friends they need to speak out about the racial prejudice they face every day, displacing my discomfort onto them and sidestepping my responsibility to publicly defend my friends‘ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because I’m self-centeredly guarding my own comfort. All of these responses are called racism.
I haven’t spoken out earlier because I didn’t think it was my job. I didn’t think my voice counted for anything. I figured it was enough to quietly be “not a racist”; if I became an Anti-Racist, that would mean discomfort, responsibility, and possible conflict with society. I was afraid of being held accountable, of backing up my words with actions. I was afraid of being targeted by authorities if I protested, or ending up on the wrong end of a police line. That motivation to stay silent is called racism.
When I say “black lives matter,” I’m recognizing the hundreds of years, millions of tragic endings, and consistent mistreatment of black lives in my country by white authorities and the white citizens whose interests they represent. I’m demanding change of policy, of policing, of philosophy, and of education in my country to counter the historical narrative that black lives matter less than white lives, which we witness in American slavery, in combat, in economics, in healthcare, in educational or vocational opportunity, in media, and in jogging or playing or driving or eating or talking while black.
I’m not citing anyone else’s work or contribution to my thoughts right now because I want to emphasize my responsibility for these words. They are mine. If you disagree with them for any reason you may challenge me and I will happily share my conversations with police, with minorities, and with historians. If your skin is a different color than mine and you feel misrepresented by my description of racism, I invite your insight. If your skin is my color and you feel uncomfortable with my depiction of racial history in America or my poor treatment of your perspective, I invite your debate.
But know this: I won’t be swayed by white people defending their opinion that America’s social contract is anything but systemically racist, that black people are just whiny, and that liberal news sources are brainwashing me with their rhetoric just to unseat the current president. That might make me a racist—applying different rules to people with different skin colors—but frankly I’ve heard those opinions, probably shared them at some point, and rejected them. Not because I’m ashamed of the color of my skin but because every day I’m learning to stand against racism. Because I’m taking responsibility for loving my neighbor. Because I am an Anti-Racist.