In the same way that I don’t particularly believe in the use of leadership as a label applied to certain people, I don’t know how much I believe in the use of “racist” as a word for people. How many racist ideologies need a person hold to be a racist? How much expression? How many times? To whom? My main problem is that using the term “racist” (most people’s use of the term, that is) (a) abdicates responsibility of non-racists to be critical of themselves and (b) casts racism as a problem with individual people, rather than something broader in which most of us are implicated.
I’m not trying to say that accepting that we all have the potential to be racist means we should be more accepting of racism when we see it. See the following musical number from Avenue Q to see kind this kind of thought.
Growing up, a lot of people used this song to excuse the little actions of racism they’d commit, but that’s not my point. I think this sends the wrong message.
Here, I reflect on one example of my own racism.
Growing up, even though I lived in a relatively diverse environment and was surrounded by family members and friends from all kinds of different backgrounds, I was still inundated by media highlighting white men as generally more attractive than black men. It’s hard, as a kid, not to start to take some of those messages to heart. When I reached teenage-hood and became interested in more romantic and otherwise intimate relationships, I found myself fundamentally not attracted to black men.
Throughout high school and even part of college, I acknowledged this fact to myself, and while it made me vaguely uncomfortable, I lived with it and acted by it. Out of all of the men with which I found myself infatuated in my daily life, not a single one was black. The only black man I would acknowledge as being attractive to me was Usher, and even in that instance, I think I was just looking for an example that could make me feel better about the trends I acknowledged in my own attractions.
Some might, in a weird psychoanalytic kind of way, chalk this up to a kind of internalized racism in my part,to the extent that I did not accept my own blackness as a part of my identity. This may have been a part of it, sure, but in trying to rekindle the emotions I felt during that period of my life, I think it was much simpler than that. white men were generally attractive. Black men were not. That was just the way I felt.
It wasn’t until about halfway through college when it really started to eat away at me that this kind of trend was rooted in racism, rather that it just being an unfortunate personal preference. It was at that point that I decided to do something about it. I’m not going to go into detail about how I went about that work here, but I believed very strongly that I would be able to reorient myself away from those racist ideologies to something more just. Over time, I think I did reorient my way of thinking with more-than-moderate success.
My point here is that racism, while socialized, isn’t just something that people have to accept and live with as a part of their being. Combating racism requires acknowledging the ways in which you hold racist ideologies and waking up every day with a commitment towards thinking differently. I’m not saying that I don’t still have ways in which I can grow and try to fix the racist (and sexist, homophobic, etc.) things that still linger in my consciousness. All I’m saying is that I believe positive work is possible. I believe it is possible to become less racist, and I think we would all benefit from doing the real emotional work to at least try.