How I Became a Racist

Is there a more incredibly stupid thing than disliking or hating someone based on the amount of melanin in their skin?  Perhaps there is and it’s just difficult for me to think of it at the moment.

My experience with racism started fairly early, when I was 5 years old at a daycare.  I stayed there while my mom went to her college courses.  While at the daycare, I was told by another boy that black guys were stronger than white guys.  I was very confused by this.  I couldn’t understand why a person’s skin color would have anything to do with their strength.  After my family moved to another state, my first friend was Brian.  He was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just like me.  We had a good time together playing with action figures and running around.  Once we had lived there for a while, I developed a good friendship with a kid named Jonathan.  My parents didn’t teach me that those kids were different from me.  It was never mentioned, and my parents were always gracious and friendly to their parents.  It wasn’t until about ten years later that I thought about the fact that Brian was “”Black” and Jonathan was “Latino” as if those were meaningful terms. 

Ten years later, at 17 years old, I was living in a neighborhood where there were folks with a variety of skin colors from ebony to almond to olive to ivory and everything in between.  Which for me was not of any significance at first.  I made no distinction between my friends.  It didn’t matter that some were from China or Vietnam.  That some were from the Philippines or Malaysia.  That some were from Pakistan and India.  That some were from the Ivory Coast or the Congo.  That some were from Russia or France.  That some were from Iran or Saudi Arabia.  That some were from Mexico or Honduras.  That many were born here in the United States, and regardless of skin color were from America.  I didn’t realize that these differences divided us until I was told that they did.  I was informed by people of a wide variety of backgrounds about the discrimination they had faced.  And my heart hurt for them, because judging a person’s character based on their skin color is hurtful for that person, I had learned.  I was called, “Cracker,” and “White boy,” and “whitey” during my time living there.  I knew I had done nothing to them that would warrant such treatment, and yet they did it.  It was drilled into me that I was different, separate, apart because of my skin color.  It was then that I became a racist, that I began to see racial categories as being meaningful and real.  I didn’t suddenly start discriminating against other people based on their skin color.  I just carried those categories around in my head, aware of the divisions between myself and others, not really thinking about how those divisions had been generated.

I understand how racism gets passed on.  It’s taught in obvious and subtle ways.  One person creates an artificial divide between themselves and another person, and that person sees that created divide and acknowledges that it exists.  They then live as if that created divide is a part of their reality because it is, and they often pass that on to their children, the knowledge of the divisions between us.  Their children need to understand the world, after all.

One of the families in my neighborhood was a family I often played basketball with after school.  We often had a lot of fun together and I really enjoyed running around and pulling of crazy hooks and wild jump shots with them.  The memories make me smile even to this day.  One day, the parents of the family came over and accused my mom of racially discriminating against their children because she had picked up several children on our block to take them to the bus stop since it was pouring rain and she had not picked up the black kids.  I can see why that might prompt someone to think racial discrimination was taking place.  It’s an obvious pattern.  In reality, my mom had only picked up the kids of the parents who had asked her to do so beforehand.  So why would none of the parents of black families ask my mom to pick their kids up?  Why wouldn’t they trust her as the other parents had?  I don’t know.  Maybe they were seeing that artificial divide they had become accustomed to and never thought to ask a white woman to pick up their kids.  Maybe the racism taught them by their parents was too ingrained.  Maybe they had been victims of the same discrimination as their parents.  Whatever the cause, the racial divide was very much a reality for them and it was a reality that they had not caused originally.  I wasn’t born seeing racial distinctions, and I would hazard a guess that they weren’t either, that like me they had started to learn very early (and probably painfully) how to be racist.

After moving to another state to start a new life as a university student, I learned in my African-American Studies course that I was a participant in White Privilege, that because of my skin color I was a part of institutional discrimination against people of color.  I learned about all the power I had over others by virtue of my pale skin, a power I couldn’t recall having when I was threatened by three “people of color” in high school because the only other white guy on the soccer team had flipped them off and they couldn’t tell us apart even though he had straight blonde hair and my hair is dark and curly and coarse.  It’s true that because I have pale skin I’m safer when I walk around towns that used to be open Klan strongholds.  It’s true that some folks aren’t as quick to feel threatened by me as they are someone with darker skin.  Widespread discrimination is a very ugly part of our society.  I just can’t figure out exactly how that’s my fault in the same way that I can’t figure out how it’s Brian or Jonathan’s fault.  Why do we need to bear the burden of racial division simply because those before us did?  Is it necessary that in addition to learning the valuable historical lessons we also participate in racism?

I wish I could still see with the eyes I had as a child, the eyes that didn’t overlay racial categories on a reality that simply doesn’t have them, a reality much more complex and beautiful than our simplistic and ugly classifications would admit.  I don’t think my mind will ever give up seeing those divisions because, while merely being a manufactured part of our social reality, they do exist now and I have to deal with them.  And yet I will try to avoid imposing them on younger generations in the hope that unlike me, they won’t ever be taught to be racist.  I hope that someday racism can end and that if we must be divided, we will be divided over things that actually matter.

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14 Responses to How I Became a Racist

  1. QuantumStorm says:

    There’s a fine line between reparations and “sins of the father” that people like affirmative action supporters and radfems, for example, often fail to grasp. White privilege, male privilege, etc… 

  2. galadrial says:

    Prejudice is alive and well…and it crosses ever racial line.I went to school with a girl who’s parents were bi-racial. She hated BOTH of them, because she felt rejected by both races. She was very fair…her brothers were not. My parents had issues—but they did not permit, or use racial slurs. I grew up in the 1960’s, in Jersey City, where the color of your skin determined where you could live…no lie. The schools were not “segregated” formally, but the high school in a black area had a black only population, the same for the “whites”. The exception were the private schools—I attended catholic and public schools alternatively. (public for kindergarten, 4 years at St. Josephs’…four years at public, and then back to private for high school ) The populations there were more varied…particularly the high school. We tried to be color blind…but it’s impossible. My daughter taught me that when she was three. I had her in a swim class—and Desi had never been around children of color. They were hanging on the edge of the pool, waiting for her teacher, when Desi started RUBBING the little girl next to us. It took a second for me to realize what she was doing…which was trying to see if the color came off. I was HORRIFIED. But the girl’s mom took it in a stride. “Kids are more honest. ” she said. Desi grew up more liberal than I am, more at ease. I thought I was “cool”…but learned as I got older that our upbringing DOES write on us. No matter how hard you try not to be racial…it’s there. It shouldn’t be hateful…but for too many, that’s the lesson.

  3. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @QuantumStorm – I’m not sure that reparations are even possible.  The history of racial discrimination in this country is so longstanding and tragic that I can’t even imagine what could possibly make amends for it aside from true unity among those of us living now. That might be miraculous enough.

  4. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @galadrial – So true.  Racism is insidious and it plays on our natural tendency to notice differences and be curious about them.  It’s too bad more of us adults can’t be innocent about it like your daughter.  Observant curiosity is cool.  It’s when you start to see the skin color as indicative of character that the problems abound.

  5. an_OM_aly says:

    Some religions view blacks as having the ‘curse of Cain’, a visible mark to set them apart. Some whites view them as savages from the Dark Continent, scary. Some people seem to use it as a reason to feel better about themselves, well, at least i’m not black, or whatever. Some fear what is not familiar. My parents were prejudiced, but i can not remember that i ever was. If i’m not going to like someone it would be for a better reason than their appearance.One time when my kids were young we had a big party that started before their bedtime. The next morning they both brought up how they liked  the diverse guests. When simply asked why they liked them, the reply was because they were different.I don’t think that the other countries in the world are, in general, as prejudiced as we are in the US. Hope in the children of the future. The insane cultural prejudices have to become extinct to survive in a multicultural world.

  6. I’m a blood-typist.  I discriminate against people on the basis of their blood type. 😉

  7. ctaretz says:

    Racism DOES suck… Race, ethnicity/religion, sexuality, etc, should have never been a part of the arithmetic when equating the ways we attempt to coexist with one another. If anything, all listed should have been embraced centuries ago as a great discovery in difference, instead of trying to dominate or be fearful of those differences…Great post! 

  8. QuantumStorm says:

    @Nous_Apeiron – Indeed. As long as people dwell on the past in such a way as to justify divisiveness in the present, things won’t get better. 

  9. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @an_OM_aly – They really do have to stop if we want to survive.  Their survival value, once fairly high, has mostly ended in the West.@soccerdadforlife – I do too.  Why, I was walking down the street the other day and saw an O- blood type.  Can you imagine my distress?@ctaretz – Thanks!

  10. Nidan says:

    It’s amazing that so many people today still even believe the human race comes prepackaged in biologically sorted collections of groups called races. Of course some people look more closely related to others but one solid fact is that superficial differences do NOT translate into meaningful biological differences with firm borders all around. They did a DNA test once involving people of various diversities from all over the world. They found that two black Africans living less than 100 miles from each other geographically and on the same continent were more distant cousins with each other than a they were with an Asian who lived in Japan. Further, if you lined the whole human race up by skin color side by side all the way down from the lightest skin color to the darkest, you would find there is no discernible break. No natural border. To line people up by skin color and say they are different races, is as silly as lining tall people up next to short people and saying that’s evidence of two species of human. It’s just plain wrong. Even dumber is the fact that what “race” you are, is assigned arbitrarily by culture, and not by any objective criteria. As one guy pointed out, many “black” people in New York can hop on a plane and fly to the Philippine islands then when they land they are suddenly “white”! That’s not because of some magical physical transformation on the plane, but because the culture is different. We are not several races, but one single race. And I’m sorry about ranting on your post but this is a subject I feel strongly about!

  11. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @Nidan@revelife – It was a good rant.  I enjoyed it.  

  12. BlobOfGoo says:

    I agree/relate to the notion that racism is something you learn– I’m multiracial and didn’t really learn the categories until people started spewing unusual words at me, haha. I feel guilty because racial categories are a part of my worldview, but also think there’s utility in it… sadly, seems like giving in to generalizations is what we do as we grow up.  I really agree, though, in that a child’s mind is an amazing, beautiful thing. Honestly, if society were such that people could continue to play and explore as kids do, I bet they wouldn’t be as apt to accept rigid classifications…

  13. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @BlobOfGoo – Excellent points.  

  14. “So why would none of the parents of black families ask my mom to pick their kids up?”  Well, it was her responsibility as a guilty white racist to ask them if they wanted her to pick up their kids.  Seriously, if blacks make friends with whites while living in the ghetto, their friends are likely to gibe them with comments about “salt and pepper,” which is substantially an accusation of disloyalty to the race.  It’s similar to what white power racists do when they accuse whites married to non-whites of being race traitors, though the degree is far less, of course.  However, it is actually more effective at cutting off blacks from white friends that white racists are because there are far higher percentages of blacks who think like this than there are white power racists.If blacks move into suburbia, they face problems.  They’ll be called “Oreos”, of course.  If they maintain contact with friends from the ghetto, and their friends come visit them, then their behavior may cause problems for the black suburban residents.  Their friends may be criminals, unknown to them, and may do crimes in the suburbs as a result.The alternative is to cut off their friends from the ghetto, which is painful.There is always the very real possibility that relatives of the black suburbanites might bring crime into the new neighborhood when they come to visit either themselves or through their friends.Then there’s getting stopped frequently by the police in the new neighborhood until they learn that you live there.  Actually, they might get stopped less in the new neighborhood.

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