By Jenée Desmond-Harris
"I'm a racist, and I don't want to be. I'm a white man in my very early 40s, and for years I've been extremely awkward and anxious around African Americans, especially men. At some point in my early teens, I became very self-conscious about the racial divide. And about that time, I moved to a much more homogeneously white area, and I guess gradually black people became abstractions to me or something. When I moved back to a more mixed neighborhood in college, I found I was afraid of them. Horrible thoughts and associations -- of crime, violence, whatever -- would spring to mind.
"Now it's reached the point where I can't encounter any African-American person without these thoughts cropping up, along with this seizure of panic that I'm racist, I'm giving off a funny vibe, I'm making that person feel uncomfortable and he or she can see through me and knows what's going on. It's a complex of shame and humiliation and fear that for two-plus decades I haven't been able to think my way out of, and if anything, it's only getting worse with age.
"When I look for some suggestions online, they recommend going out and meeting the people I'm afraid of -- trying to make the abstract particular, humanizing who I'm imagining, etc. But come on. How is that not just turning people into my little self-betterment project? It's hard for me to imagine something more condescending and objectifying. Of course, I'm also just flat-out scared of being exposed, of being seen for who I am.
"I have no patience with apologists who would argue that there's a legitimate justification for being racist. But I also have had no success in eradicating this side of my personality that I find so repellent." --Ready to Get Rid of Racism
I love this question. But I know from the reactions to my one little tweet seeking an expert on "how a white person can shed his racism" (Summary: "Is this serious? Get over it, jerk") that some people are going to hate it. So before I get to my advice, I want to make my pitch for why it's great that you wrote in.
I understand that hearing someone admit to "horrible thoughts and associations" when it comes to black people makes those of us who are sick to death of racism want to vomit a little. I get it.
But aren't we the same people who believe that white supremacy is deeply ingrained in our society and affects so many people (to say nothing of institutions), from the most hateful and outspoken to the well-meaning but ignorant "accidental racists" and "hipster racists" of the world?
If so, I don't think we can really be mad at a person who proactively admits -- and hates -- that he or she has absorbed all that nonsense. Isn't this exactly the type of question we wish Paula Deen had asked herself back when she was known more for butter than for bigotry? Aren't these ideas about "crime, violence, whatever" just what we wish George Zimmerman had begged for help eliminating before he shot and killed the "up to no good" Trayvon Martin? Exactly. I thought so.
That's why I decided to answer this question and to seek the best-possible advice for you.
I spoke to Dr. Mike Likier, a cognitive behavioral psychologist who conducts diversity and anti-racism trainings. His answer to my first question -- whether you have some actual phobia of black people and need to get yourself into therapy -- was a no (although he said that talking this through with a carefully selected and social-justice-conscious professional wouldn't hurt).
So, good news: You won't have to pay a copay to banish your bigotry. Here's what he suggested you do instead.
The first order of business is to stop freaking out. "Normalize this," says Likier. What? Racism? Normal? That sounds like a bad idea. But, he explains, "It actually makes perfect sense to have these thoughts, given that you're 40 years old and grew up in the United States." He encourages you to "have a little empathy with yourself," adding that, in a racist society, "we all get gamed," and whether we're carrying around internalized oppression or internalized superiority, racism robs all of us of our humanity.
Second, recognize that this anxiety you're feeling is actually kind of good. It's healthy to be troubled by the fact that you were socialized against your will to have racist thoughts. "If more people felt as bad about that," Likier says, "we'd be able to organize and mobilize and deal with these things."
Third, seize the moment and all the angst you're experiencing. According to people who study stages of racial-identity development, it means you're at a critical juncture here. Likier says that most white people experience some kind of crisis when they become aware of racism and even their own role in it -- and it's uncomfortable. You can deal with this cognitive dissonance by pushing it back onto people of color (blaming, hating, demonizing, etc., and all that stuff with which we're way too familiar), or you can do something different.
Lucky for you, doing something different starts off pretty easy: Read. And then read more. History. White privilege. Black writers. White anti-racism writers. Information about the history and operations of not just individual but also structural racism won't just make you smarter -- it will also help you harness all the energy that's currently wasted on panic attacks over your own attitudes.
Of course, Likier has advice for where you should redirect all that energy, too. (No, it's not "make black friends.") He says that there are plenty of white people out there who are committed to anti-racism. And you need to find them. There are conferencesand alliances and everything. In these spaces, "work out some of your own stuff before you try to have meaningful cross-cultural conversations," he advises.
Chances are what will come naturally from this experience is looking at how racism is operating in the spheres you walk around in every day and what you can do about it, he predicts. You'll focus less on suppressing your bad feelings and more on how you can take positive actions.
But what about the short term -- when you run into a black person tomorrow? Likier says that his advice is similar to what he would offer a client struggling with public speaking or any other unfounded fear: Acknowledge that you're having negative thoughts, challenge yourself to articulate any real basis for them and let them go. He even offers a simple little mantra -- one that could eliminate so much harm if people would embrace it (Can we get this to go viral? Does the Tea Party have a group email list?): "I'm having racist thoughts, but I have an opportunity to do something different. I want to be on the right side of this."
I, for one, believe that you do want to -- and that you will be.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life -- and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her onTwitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.