Help, I'm a Racist and I Don't Want to Be

Admitting it is the first step! But it's not enough. What you do at this important juncture matters.

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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 conferences and 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."