In this national moment of Black Lives Matter awareness, as I am forced to stop, and think, about how people of color have been treated as less than human in this country – a fact I have been cognizant of and from time to time commented on, but done way too little about – I keep coming back to my own personal history.
My mother tried to instill in me what she called Brutal Honesty. What she meant was I must diligently strive to not lie to myself. It’s an impossible task, but the idea became so ingrained, I’ve tried to make it a habit.
Here’s a comment I’ve often made: I hit the lottery; I was born white male in mid-twentieth-century USA.
The point is, it was easier for me to be successful than if I had been born anything but white and male: my nod to the advantages the USA conferred on me for not being a woman, person of color, a recent immigrant, or LGBTQ.
In the USA, I am the not-other.
Another thing I think about, and have done way too little about, is my own inner racism.
I have been hesitant to use that word – racism – instead, softening it in my mind to historical bias, conditioning, soft-determinism, or even something more inexcusable: habit.
Here’s the gut-wrenching truth: Deep down, I am a racist.
I’ve never been accused of being a racist. Most people think of me as a bastion of liberal tolerance.
Here’s how I know: When I walk down the street and a group of young black men walk by me, anxiety curdles the recesses of my stomach.
I smile and say “hey”, or “whatsup?”
It’s that easy to convince myself I am not really afraid.
Yet what if the young men see fear in my eyes?
Don’t they sense inauthenticity in my welcoming manner?
Honesty is not enough; it must be Brutal.
I’ve always maintained – and had many discussions with my son about this – that racism and misogyny (any fear of the-other) – cannot be overcome in one generation, by passing a law, or insisting on political correctness alone.
My father was less racist than his father, but he was a racist. I am less racist than my father. My son, by all measures, is not a racist. Yet his children are less biased and racist than he. My son agrees.
This is how political correctness works; I was brought up in a world where my grandfather, born in 1892, used the n-word more descriptively than derogatorily (can I even say that? Or is that the whitewashing of a child’s memory?) And my father used it in front of me only in anger or when his political correctness lapsed.
My mother did not allow it in our home. I never use it, but have always been bewildered why it was OK for black people to use it in contexts I would be condemned for. My son understands its use as historical and moral ignorance, and both he and his children, my beautiful grandchildren, understand it’s petty hatefulness better than I.
Our current national BLM moment is an overdue reckoning. It will mean something only if it is also a personal reckoning. I must free myself. And the path to that freedom is Brutal Honesty.
I am a racist.
Next Post: Personal Experiences With Race