The Racist Inside

Growing up I thought racism was something “out there.” Slavery, the KKK, and white supremacists were what I thought of when I heard the word “racism.” Of course, it wasn’t something that hit close to home for me or that I even acknowledged as a problem. I knew there were racists in our country, but it was something that I only saw on TV, or read about in my children’s US history books about the evils of slavery.

I regret that only recently I’ve becoming aware, of white privilege and systematic oppression of people of color (POC), particularly African Americans. With extreme cases like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown we are confronted with a pervasive racism in our country which needs to be addressed. But not only this, but even on a much smaller scale, in daily interactions, we need to be aware of the racism that POC face.


As I’ve become more aware of this I feel two things: “How come didn’t I clearly see this earlier?” and “How should I respond?”  I’d like to address some of my feelings on the second question in how I feel white Americans can respond to racism in our country:


1) Listen first 

This is an uncomfortable place. If you’re like me, you will naturally react in your mind when you hear people talk about “white supremacy of America”, “white privilege”, or “systematic oppression.” If you’re like me, you will feel reactions against what is being said to you and excuse yourself from injustices that you feel you had nothing to do with. Acknowledge that while you might feel non-racist, push yourself to LISTEN first. Speak less. Think about the things in your life which might have strings of prejudice attached and start pondering there.

If someone says they are being discriminated against, don’t write them off. Really listen. Consider it from multiple perspectives.

2) Push back against your “filter against anger”

No one likes to be yelled at, cursed at or called names. The reaction is to stop listening immediately. But look beyond that. Challenge yourself and your way of thinking.

There is a lot of talk about the angry black folks and people discarding what black people say if there is a slight twinge of anger in their voice. Being a communications professional, I’m particularly sensitive to mediums of effective communication, but if one is to be superbly understanding, look beyond the emotional response of the communicator and listen to the content of the message. People have a right to be angry about institutionalized racism, and it is our place as the listener to filter through the anger, and listen to the underlying message. Find voices out there who are balanced, intellectual, and bold like Michele Alexander or Ta-Nehisi Coates.

3) Don’t embrace self hatred for being white

Feeling a deep sense of “white guilt” or feeling regret about your race is not going to help you.  Part of the initial guilt is a good thing, helping us to realize the privileges we have in this country due to our race. However, you can do something about it. While other people may stoop to the level of saying hateful things about someone based on their race, you don’t have to let it soak into your skin.  Acknowledge your privilege, but don’t hate yourself for it. See my article “Why I’m OK Being White” which talks a little about my personal experience of discovering my whiteness as it pertains to being in relationships with POC.

4) Be an advocate

One way to fight back against racism instead of sitting back and doing nothing, is to be an ally. Look at your race and privilege as an opportunity to build others up. When you see an injustice going on, speak up. If you’re put in a position of power which a POC color deserves, step down (easier said than done).

5) Speak up 

Even though some people say white people need to “shut the f* up,” I disagree. If one listens first, there is great power when someone with privilege gives it up and speaks out against it. If only people of color are speaking out against racism, we will not get very far in seeing it actually eradicated.


4 thoughts on “The Racist Inside”

  1. This is so well-said. I had a similar journey myself; I grew up in the politically correct 1990s when we showed how not racist we were through our words, which may or may not have matched up with our actions. Realizing that racism was systemic as well as individual – and that like it or not, I benefitted from this systemic racism – was jarring and made me very defensive. But I began to realize those defense mechanisms were also part of the well-oiled machine and kept things from getting better. It is still hard to put my ego and acculturated racist thought and action patterns aside, but it is necessary and I am always learning how to be quicker to listen and slower to speak, how to be deliberate in my actions and consider the far-reaching consequences, how to step aside for marginalized voices to be heard.

    1. Yes, in the 1990s the trend and message was to be “colorblind.” Now we’ve realized that hasn’t worked for us very well, but a good majority of the population still thinks we shouldn’t see color.

  2. Jessica, I appreciate your introspective analysis of the topic, and I can certainly that racism still persists in our culture. I also understand that whatever the cause, at its root, it is a matter of the heart. Jeremiah said it pretty well as he wrote, “The heart is desperately wicked…”

    I grew up during the turbulent time of the 60s and 70s when the Civil Rights movement made its most significant strides towards Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of true acceptance. I know we’re not there yet, but the major institutions of racism have come down. For example, the laws regarding inter-racial marriage are gone, the growing acceptance of these relationships, the voting rights acts, and other laws which were passed to fully implement the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to our Constitution, and many of our hearts have been changed. Of course, I can only speak of the racism which I’ve seen here in America, but I know it exists elsewhere as well.

    Jessica, what does bother me is that we have “leaders” who seek to use race to continue to divide us as people. Even some leaders of “color” use race for political advantage and yes, control. And in this area, I do agree with you that institutional racism still exists.

    Here are some hard questions I would like to ask. Why is it that, in America, generational poverty still exists and much of it in communities of color? Why is that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, advocated the elimination of the “black” race through eugenics, and Kermit Gosnell, who is a person of color, eliminated many babies of color in his killing facility? To go back to my first question, why is it that government programs, which were instituted to reduce and eliminate poverty, have only done the opposite? Why is it that these programs and policies institutionalize more and more people to become dependent on them? Are people aware that the first slave owner in America was a person of color?

    Our media doesn’t help because they only show the angry faces and we hear the angry voices, and they neglect to show those being peaceful and helping others, yes, in Ferguson. Why is it that in Ferguson, the only “justice” that would be acceptable is for the police officer involved to be “convicted,” even if he’s not guilty? Are we so blind that we can do to some of us in the legal system, the same thing that was done to Jesus? We make a mockery of justice whether, for expediency or out of prejudice, to convict innocent people of color or a white police officer who may have acted in self-defense, or whatever else may have happened? Do we really want “social justice,” or do we want “equal justice” under law, for which Martin Luther King sought, lived, and gave his life?

    The answer is found in a simple four letter word, and we don’t hear a lot about that word in the discussion of race, and that word is love. We seem to have forgotten one of the great commandments, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And there are the words of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Now that we’ve been ripped apart again because of race, what shall we do to bring healing and peace back? Can we stop listening to those voices, no matter who they are, who advocate violence and who would seek to continue to stir up strife?

    Some may say that I don’t understand prejudice and discrimination and that I’ve never experienced either one. I assure you that I have. You’re right, I’ve never experienced racial discrimination, but as someone who’s blind, I have. I was discriminated against in the area of employment and generally “put down” by sighty, and yes, my blindness was a point of jokes. There’s something Dr. King showed all of us by how he lived his life, and it’s one of the most difficult things to do; love your enemies.

  3. This is a controversial statement, but our American hyper-individualistic culture is very bad at addressing the problem of racism because racism is both an individual AND a structural issue. Most people like to stop thinking at “if I don’t personally hate people of color then it’s no longer my problem.” Until and unless we value empathy in our culture (we don’t) and accept that we are INTERCONNECTED individuals (we don’t), then it is going to be very difficult to solve this problem. Not that we should abandon it, but that we should speak even louder – with words and actions – until others join in.

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