Sunday, September 21, 2014

I'm a Racist, and You Are Too. Accept It.

It’s the beginning of a new school year, a time when I find myself reflecting on the parts of myself that brought me into this work.

It was the fall of 2005 when I first stepped in front of a group of diverse students. I stayed up all night planning the perfect thirty-minute lesson. I must have tweaked it, reworked it, and totally re-planned it dozens of times before I went to bed late at night.

Then, I believed excellent teaching was about perfect planning, exact timing, and lots of energy. Now, I believe it’s more about appropriate perspectives on school, society, and human behavior.

In the years since that first lesson plan, I’ve learned hundreds of times over that I have led a tremendously privileged life. And while I believed that in 2005, teaching in urban schools has allowed me to experience its veracity many, many times firsthand.

Nine years later, I’m still discovering assumptions I make about people and behavior that need reexamining. This is a fundamental part of human nature buried deep in our amygdala. A predisposition toward prejudice is part of the package.

The question is not whether you will be biased toward a group of people for this reason or that. The question is which group of people it will be and how it manifests itself in your behavior. To believe otherwise is to put yourself on a pedestal – to raise yourself above the rest of us. Our society is not post-racial because we as individuals are not, and never will be, post-racial.

Unbeknownst to people who claim not to be racist, nobody lives 100% of their life in their pre-frontal cortex. Prejudice and the tendencies toward oppression that accompany it are deep-seated and often unconscious.

This is important for people who work in institutions that serve as cornerstones of democracy (like public schools) to understand. We endeavor to create a more equitable, less oppressive society that honors the individual while addressing the needs of the group. (It’s a noble goal, anyway.) To believe that you behave without bias often serves only to reinforce oppressive behavior by closing your mind to valuable opportunities for reflection.

The perfect instructional plans are years in the making. Anyone who teaches knows the importance of experience in crafting valuable learning environments. You’ll get there if you persist, but only if you understand humans (and yourself) for what they are and how they’re inclined to behave.

Prejudice does not make a person evil. And it shouldn’t be thought to exist in one person or another, but rather to be a inextricable piece of humanity. Combatting it in others can be both challenging and meaningful, but sometimes less so than doing that work within yourself.

I can think of no group of people who need to understand this more than educators.


  1. Love this line: Unbeknownst to people who claim not to be racist, nobody lives 100% of their life in their pre-frontal cortex.

    You title is provocative, but I'm guessing you knew that. Big difference between sometimes being racist (in the ways you describe) and being 'a' racist (imo).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sue.

      I suppose your right. And I think it raises an important question: What is 'a' racist?

  2. Perhaps it's better to retire that usage, even with those who we feel sure are racists. Because the only way to help people grow is to accept them (not their actions, but their being). Perhaps you prefer not to engage with people who are ok with their own racism, and that makes sense too. But if our goal is to help the world heal from racism, it's probably not a good idea to label people.

    I think a racist is someone who consciously thinks they are somehow better and/or more deserving than people of other races. But as you pointed out in your post, our unconscious biases may be just as strong. We can do a lot of harm without meaning to.