Note to my white self…

You are racist.

I know that’s hard to hear. You were taught that racism is wrong, that you shouldn’t treat anyone differently because of the color of their skin.  You took that to heart and tried to always respect others, regardless of their race.   You never used the n word, or told racist jokes, or laughed when others did.  You tried to avoid stereotypes, to treat people as individuals and not as a group.  You befriended people of color and even loved some of them.  You taught all of that to your own children, convinced it would make the world a better place.

So I understand why it’s hard to acknowledge you’re something you’ve spent your whole life trying not to be. Racist is what you called other white people, the white people who used the n word, who told the jokes or laughed at them, who promoted the stereotypes, who ignored or were rude to people of color and who passed on their prejudice to their children.  Racists are bad people and you’re not a bad person.

You’re not a bad person.

That’s why admitting you’re racist is so hard, especially when that accusation comes from people of color, who tell you that your definition of racism was wrong, that it left out some behaviors, ignored some attitudes and accepted some injustices. They point out all the privileges you possess at a white person and you get defensive.  All your life you’ve tried to do the right thing and all of the sudden you’re being told it wasn’t enough, that you’re not all that different from the white people you despised.  That’s painful to hear precisely because you are a good person.  You don’t want to be thrown into the same category as them.

But what do you do?  How do you respond to people of color?

You can’t ignore or be rude to them. That’s what racists do.  You can’t pretend you understand racism better than them.  You know how silly that sounds. You can’t deny your good fortune in being born into white privilege.  You know you wouldn’t trade places with them.

So what do you do?

Fortunately, I know you. You’re a good person.  I know that when you’ve had time to really think about it, to really listen to them and to stop being defensive, you’ll do the right thing.  You’ll accept that racism, even when unintentional or unconscious, is still racism.  You’ll reluctantly acknowledge all those things you never even knew you were doing. You’ll admit how unfair the world can still be. You’ll expand your definition of racism to include whatever still hurts, diminishes and oppresses people of color.  You’ll stop doing those things.  You’ll get back to work at making the world a better place.

I have confidence in you.

You’ll do all of that because you’ve always believed racism was wrong.





5 thoughts on “I Am Racist

  1. I can’t tell you how glad I am to see this conversation happening at all. As a white person, I get so dispirited with the near-constant denial and anger I see from other white folks when the subject of race comes up. I get exhausted from trying to have these very necessary conversations. I can’t imagine how soul-weary people of color must be at that reaction. Thank you both for being willing to self-reflect, and for doing so openly! Maybe it will prompt others to finally do the same.


    1. I agree, Amelia. Every time I get frustrated when having this kind of conversation with another white person, I remember how difficult (maybe impossible) and exhausting it must be for people of color to face this kind of resistance to what they know experientially to be true. So I keep talking to myself and to other white people.


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