Inside the Racist Mind
The fact that you may honestly believe you are not biased does not free you from unconscious racism
After a recent event where I spoke about racial identity, a white woman sidled up to me, leaned in close so no one near us could hear, and said, “I’m racist.” Many people would be repelled. I was entranced. Here was someone who could tell me first hand how the racist mind worked. Social scientists have done studies on Klansmen and Neo-Nazis but those sorts of people are outliers, socially and mentally, while this woman was the sort of person you might encounter on a normal day. She seemed indicative of the sort of racist mind we’d be mostly likely to meet. She seemed normal. So I decided to talk to her and find out how her mind worked.
Studies show most people have some sort of prejudice or bias. “Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions even when an individual does not want to discriminate,” write Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. “The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends and relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias. Implicit bias tests may still show that you hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about blacks even though you do not believe you do and do not want to.” Part of the problem is the monsoon of negative messages about blacks coming at Americans which makes being non-racist almost like mentally swimming upstream.
Still, most people today are ashamed to be racist and know to do their best to never reveal it. So after this woman at the event told me she was racist, I said, “Really?!” in a way that indicated I wasn’t offended and that she could feel comfortable to speak freely. She did.
“I just have these thoughts,” she said, almost whispering into my ear. I felt like she was confessing as if I were her priest. “My mind just goes places. I can’t control it. I know it’s wrong but I can’t help myself. I say, Don’t think like that! But it’s what people told me when I was younger.” Then she leaned back and someone else said hello and our moment of penance concluded.
I wanted to hear more but I had heard enough to understand. She had mental habits based on ideas implanted long ago that had taken root in her subconscious. She’s got various stereotypes and biases firmly lodged in her long-term memory where she stores things like how to ride a bike. That’s why the thoughts feel like they come at her automatically and beyond her control—“My mind just goes places.” At this point, unlearning those perceptions would be as hard as unlearning bike-riding—if there were near-constant media messages and social reinforcements about how to ride a bike. And yet society has also taught her that she should be ashamed to judge people in this way. It’s sad that she knows she should not think racist thoughts but cannot stop herself because the lessons were learned and reinforced so well.
Some people suggest that the multiracial embrace of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Will Smith and others portends the end of racism. But this, as the writer Arundati Roy says, is like the President pardoning one turkey before Thanksgiving and then eating another—and America eats thousands. The human mind is complex enough to integrate hypocrisy and contradictions. There have long been extraordinary blacks who succeeded far more than the vast majority and were accepted as special. The racist mind need not hate every black person it encounters, and indeed not hating all may serve as a valuable safety valve, releasing pressure and proving to the mind itself that it is not racist. Few people want to think of themselves as bad or evil.
Ever get involved with someone who is still carrying baggage from one or more previous relationships? I’m talking about someone with more issues than National Geographic.
Her ex(es) cheated on her so you will forever pay the price. It doesn’t matter that you never cheated or that you bend over backwards to demonstrate your innocence and fidelity. She knows you are guilty and she’ll keep digging until she finds the proof.
Slavery and Jim Crow segregation are two of the ugliest chapters in our nation’s history. The only thing worse was the genocide we committed upon the Native Americans.
But please excuse me if my feelings of shame for those historic events is limited. I didn’t do it. I wasn’t even born until 1960. All the relatives I have been able to trace came to this country after the Civil War and none of them lived in Jim Crow states. I feel no guilt over things that were committed by other people before I was born.
I wasn’t taught racism as a child. I cannot recall ever hearing my mother, grandmother or step-father ever using racial epithets or suggesting that blacks and other people of color were not equal to us. The school system in my hometown was fully desegregated by 1967. Everyone attended the same high school.
The last time I had thoughts I couldn’t control I was in puberty and the thoughts were sexual in nature rather than racist. The guilt I felt associated with those thoughts had a lot to do with why I quit going to church.
When James Byrd, Jr. was murdered by three white supremacists down in Texas, I felt sickened and outraged. But I had not one single thought nor tiniest feeling of sympathy for or connection to the animals that did it.
Let’s assume for a moment that Mr. Neblett is correct and most white people are unconsciously racist. What can we do about it?
We fought a war to end slavery. A lot of political capital was spent to end segregation. We passed new laws and constitutional amendments to make everyone equal under the law. We made racism socially unacceptable. As even Mr. Neblett admits, racial bigotry is considered a thing to be ashamed of nowadays. So what else do we still need to do?
I’m serious – is there some law we still need to pass? Are there reparations we still need to make? What will it take to end our national penance for the past?
Because I am sick and tired of being blamed for the words and actions of other people. And I am sick and tired of being judged by the color of my skin by people like Touré Neblett.
George Zimmerman released on bond in Trayvon Martin killing
George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot an unarmed teenager, was released from jail about midnight Sunday, two days after a Florida judge set his bond at $150,000.