Confessions of a Former Racist
Confessions of a Former Racist
I remember the first time I learned the word racist. It’s not a word I learned at home, from my friends, or from TV. I was in fifth grade and I was getting reprimanded by my teacher for making a derogatory joke towards a black classmate. A joke that I had no idea was wrong. I was just annoyed with the girl and told the joke to get back at her. I assumed acting out of anger was where I went wrong, but it never crossed my mind that using the color of her skin as the butt of a joke was the real problem. That day, I still maintained that I wasn’t a racist. After all, my best friend at my old school was a black Muslim, which had to count for something, right?
I grew up in a Christian home. I was taught to be kind to people and “be a light”, but it still took eleven years for me to learn that there was a word for viewing people who were different from you as lesser than. Yes, I grew up Christian, but I also grew up in a family of law enforcement and civil servants, so I learned from an early age who “bad people” were and furthermore, what they typically looked like. I quickly learned that there were people like us and people like them. I learned all the slurs used by cops and firemen, but it was ok because they “see so much” and regular people just didn’t understand. (Now, in no way do I want to discount the intensity of these jobs or attack the people doing them. They do see a lot and they do work incredibly hard to keep us safe, and the ones who do their jobs responsibly and ethically deserve our thanks. I still hold a great deal of love in my heart for these family members.)
See, we were raised to be nice to people, but racist jokes flew through our family simultaneously. We were taught that there were things you just didn’t say “outside the home” because we needed to show the love of Christ. But while we were at home, we all had an understanding. After all, we knew deep down that none of us were “actual racists”, but other people just wouldn’t get that. My mom didn’t love the jokes. She was always the voice telling us to watch how we talked about people. But to my dad, it was ok as long as it was funny, and my mom felt like a killjoy so we dismissed her comments. Ultimately, she would just let it happen, and would even chuckle from time to time. By high school, I was known endearingly to my friend group as the “racist friend”. To me, that just meant I was hilarious and didn’t cave in to the pressure to be “politically correct”. I wore that badge proudly, still assuring myself that I wasn’t really a racist. They were just jokes. I mean, I’m Mexican, so I could at least talk about my own people, right? Nevermind the fact that I completely dismissed being Mexican until it benefitted me. My dad would always jokingly say, “you’re white unless you’re filling out an application”, and it became my motto.
In tenth grade I saw Wicked and loved it, so when my English teacher announced that she’d just seen it, I was all ears. At the time, we were in our Holocaust unit so she talked about the parallels she noticed between the play and genocides throughout history. How when society needs a scapegoat (Dr. Dillamond, anyone?), it singles out a group and villainizes them. We start blaming them for crime, finances, you name it, and then we start the process of dehumanizing them. Taking away their rights, treating them as beneath us, even coming up with names for them to make us feel justified. If you’ve seen Wicked, the Wizard does this by gathering all of the Animals (who could speak and were equal to humans) and stripping them of their ability to speak, which made them un-understandable to the citizens of Oz, and therefore less-than. Hitler dehumanized the Jews by stripping them of their rights and labeling them as “vermin” and “undesirables”. You get the picture. But then that teacher asked the question that I’ve been unable to erase from my mind since. She said, “We think we’re better than these stories, and it could never happen again. But is there a group of people today that you could see this happening to?” Immediately, involuntarily, my mind changed the channel to my dad talking about how the “illegals” are causing all this California traffic and taking our jobs. How they’re responsible for our crime rate and how their gangs are killing our citizens. How I might not get into a good college because some “illegal” will take my spot, and how we can’t go to Walmart anymore without everyone speaking Spanish. As quickly as those thoughts flooded my mind, they were gone and I convinced myself that it was different. They broke a law to be here, which automatically makes them all criminals. Those were bad people and the Jews weren’t. Case closed.
It wasn’t until 2016 that I reevaluated everything; the way I’d always thought, the way I was raised. I left the church I grew up in, which never spoke on racial issues because they were too politically involved, and found a new church that accepts both sides of the spectrum and does address injustice. I caught onto this radical idea that Jesus called us to love people and that maybe He didn’t assign Himself to a political party. That being a Christian didn’t come with the requirement that you oppose the Black Lives Matter movement or be in favor of a border wall. That treating people equally applied to the way I thought about them too. That people matter. Minorities included. And not just when we go on missions trips and get to “help” them. For so long, I’d accused the world of being “too sensitive”, and prided myself on being tougher than everyone else. It wasn’t until I started putting that façade away that I realized that these “jokes” come from somewhere. Sure, I didn’t advocate for segregation or use the N-word, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t holding these groups of people in my heart as “different-than” and therefore “less-than”.
I was recently at a family gathering where my father-in-law was leading an angry rant about “illegals”, and it hit me that some of us are literally okay with human beings being put in cages because they’re just “illegals”. What if we substituted in the word undesirables? Does that ring a bell? Words matter. Could you imagine someone in 2019 saying, “Oh yeah, my neighbor is a black” or “a homeless” or “a gay”? That sounds so 1950s. So why would calling them “an illegal” be acceptable? See, language evolves and where I used to think that everyone else was being too sensitive, I now see that there’s a real need to continue evolving in the way we speak about and label others. When we identify people by only their race or status and forget to attach “person” to it, we dehumanize them. Furthermore, when we feel the need to bring someone’s race, orientation, disability, or gender into a sentence where it’s not relevant, it reveals how we truly see them in our hearts.
Guys, I was way too old when my brain fully grasped that that Spanish-speaking lady at Walmart, and that impoverished refugee, and that black teenager from the streets of Compton were 100% human in the exact same way as me. Their lives have as much complexity and meaning as my own. They were not put on this Earth to be pitied at best and reviled at worst.
To some of you, this whole article might be glaringly obvious. You may even feel sad or angry that there are people out there who didn’t have decency drilled into their heads until adulthood. Maybe you can’t imagine needing to spell it out like I have.
But maybe there are some of you like me, who grew up in the Church and needed this explained to you at some point after you left home. Maybe this all hits you like a ton of bricks and a voice inside of your head is exclaiming, “Yes! Me too! I’m not alone!” Maybe you feel burdened and unsure of how to move forward after so many years of building up a reputation. I know I’ve felt that way.
Start listening. Start hearing perspectives from other communities, and ask how you can listen better. It’s awkward, but it’s so necessary. Through God’s grace and some serious humility, you can move forward and you can do better. Forgive those family members who you might resent for fostering an environment in which you grew up thinking this was okay. Have compassion for those frustrating people who disagree with you or haven’t yet learned these hard, sobering lessons. It’s a hard thing to admit and to this day, I constantly have to check myself because it’s still so natural to assume things about people. But we keep moving forward and learning from ourselves because that is the only way change happens.