On Fighting Racism as a Racist

Everyone seems to be against racism. Every day we hear encouragements to “get out there and fight racism,” to “unite against racism,” and to “stand against racism.” I think these encouragements are good. But something about them has started to trouble me.

Where and what is racism, if we judge by these encouragements? It seems to be a kind of entity, lurking “out there” in society somewhere. This distinguishes it from “us.” So we get a picture in which racism is out in the darkness plotting, and in which we are in the center uniting against it. “We” and “racism” are sharply distinguished.

It may not be obvious why that distinction could be troubling. Indeed, in many respects, it has been extraordinarily helpful for us. It has made clear to everyone that if you’re going to be a part of the in-crowd–if you’re going to be a member of our society–you cannot support racism. So now, almost nobody does. This too is good.

But while the sharp distinction has brought real good, it has also obscured a part of our problem. For if “we” are sharply distinguished from “racism,” then none of us can identify as racists. And that might not sound like a problem either–why, we might ask, should any reasonable person want to identify that way? So I want to be clear about what I mean. I don’t mean that anyone should want to identify as a racist. I mean that most of us, if not all of us, can accurately identify as such. Despite our genuine hatred of racism a huge number of us do in fact have racist thoughts and tendencies. We do treat black people differently than we treat white people; we do have different sets of expectations for Indian and Chinese people. We might not choose or want these unfair double standards, but if we’re being painfully honest with one another, we have to admit that we hold them nonetheless.

So why would it be good for us to identify as racist? Because if we can’t identify in that way, we won’t ever be able to deal with our own racism. We’ll recognize and condemn racism “out there” while failing to see its strong presence in here–in us, despite our hatred of it. As long as we can’t openly acknowledge this we’ll be blind to our own sin, and even our social struggle against racism will grow painfully slow.

But if we can admit to each other that we are racists too–and sexists, and bigots, and generally prejudiced people–then we can start fighting the problem in us. Then, we can start to deal with racism, sexism, and prejudice much more thoroughly.

I’ve heard that the first step in getting over something is admitting you have a problem. We have started to admit the presence of racism in the structure of our society. Now I think it’s time for us to admit its presence in us. At this point, it might be precisely by identifying as racists that we can really fight racism. So here’s me trying: In many ways, completely despite my beliefs and values, I’m racist, sexist, and generally prejudiced. I’m deeply unhappy about that. But admitting it to everyone is a part of getting better.

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