… and I’m pretty sure you are too.
Because it’s simple: If you are human, you are racist. It’s not your fault, really; it’s just the way our brains are wired. We receive millions of pieces of information on a daily basis, and our brains would be completely overwhelmed if they didn’t create shortcuts. And our brains mean well: If we had to stop and think about what a red octagon meant every time we saw one, we could get steamrolled by an oncoming truck before we figured it out. Those few seconds of processing time could literally be the difference between life and death. If you eat a banana that makes you sick, your brain creates an aversion response; your brain generalizes your experience with one banana to all bananas in an attempt to keep you from getting sick again. So in order to keep us safe, to expedite our cognitive processing so that we can be alert to danger, our brains are wired to make automatic associations and generalizations. We see this phenomenon all across the animal kingdom, and we humans are not exempt.
Unfortunately, this mechanism that’s meant to protect us also has negative ramifications. It means that our brains also make automatic associations and generalizations for people — of different colors, different sizes, what have you. So when I see a stranger who looks different from me — or even a stranger who looks similar to me — there are associations and biases that immediately pop into my head. Some of them are positive, but a lot of them are not. I’m not proud of this reality, but it’s part of being human.
Ergo, it makes me crazy when people try to deny that they’re racist. Sure, you may not have a white hood or a garage full of crosses to burn, but the reality is that you probably have automatic thoughts when you see people who look different from you — and some of these thoughts aren’t pretty. This happens to everyone. You are no worse than anyone else for having these thoughts. But you can’t pretend you don’t have them, because that’s simply how our brains work.
Now, by saying that racist thoughts are normal, I’m not arguing that racist behavior is acceptable; there’s a long way between having an ugly thought and articulating it, or denying someone a job based on their race, or lighting one of the aforementioned crosses on fire. What I am saying is that we need to acknowledge that we have these tendencies, these automatic associations and generalizations, whether we like them or not. Because in spite of what some people say, racism is still a significant problem — if you doubt this, just take a quick gander around the internet — and we can’t have a productive conversation about it, either in our personal relationships or on a broader national scale, until we acknowledge that we all have biases. The unwillingness of many to even acknowledge this basic reality keeps us from having the conversations we need to have in order to heal from past wounds and to instigate change for the future.
Obviously, there’s more we need to do beyond simply acknowledging that we’re racist. We need to actively correct ourselves — and each other — when these associations pop up in our minds or in conversation. We need to be in meaningful relationships with people from backgrounds and belief systems of all kinds; the benefits of these relationships are many, but one of them is that they provide us with data to discredit our primitive automatic thoughts. We need to be conscious of the ways in which policies and laws and systems can discriminate, and we need to pool our efforts to change them when that’s the case. But before any of those things can happen, we need to acknowledge that we’re racist, that we all make these associations and generalizations that we’re not proud of, that we all have biases that, hopefully, we’re working to overcome. Then we can start to make progress.