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.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) —

“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.