Quitting the Habit of Racism
Clearing one’s mind of racist bias and assumptions is like trying to quit smoking or lose weight. It’s hard. It’s a habit acquired unconsciously. And, unlike smoking or resisting those caloric delights, it pops up on its own, there’s no struggle to put away the pack or resist that cake. It’s just there. We grew up with it. Casual comments from parents and their friends and our friends’ parents formed the way we think about each other.
Malice may or may not have been intended but however we formed our ideas and opinions about each other, our brains soaked up the input. Words were reinforced by what we saw. The little brown girl whose hand shot up in class, ignored by the teacher and was never called on who eventually got the message her ideas and thoughts were unwelcome. The store clerk who automatically gives eye contact to the white customer when asking “Who’s next?” The maids called by their first names regardless of age. All the subtle signs were there that formed a general thinking about others. The N-word may never have been used in your house or by your friends but then your neighborhood was all white. If there’s no direct interaction, we are left only with what we read and see on television. Black people are good at sports and entertaining. Middle Eastern people are terrorists. The Asians spread disease. The Latinos make good gardeners and dance. We don’t mean to pigeon-hole people but there it is in our faces day after day in print and over the airways. Like violence, what we see on television and read for pleasure is further reinforced in the streets. The extremists don’t have to be in the mix for assumptions to take root.
Understanding all of this, does it matter? Do we care? Is there something we want to do about how we think or can we just keep our thoughts to ourselves? The problem with keeping your thoughts to yourself is that biases inevitably present in other ways, ways with which even we are unaware. Whites who care struggle with the learning about bias in America, biases carefully excluded from history books and find the study uncomfortable. Some quit. Some press on. We eulogize events like presidential assassinations and 911. Somehow we can all get behind those tragedies. But hundreds of years of slavery, Japanese internment camps, anti-Semitism? Well, those are part of our history we’d rather leave unexamined. Over time, they’ll just fade from memory. Except there always seems to be someone left who brings it all up again. Thank you George Floyd.
I’m one of those who’d rather look away. I grew up as a child of privilege and a child of color. My classmates were all white. The first time one of them called me the N-word, my dad told me to punch him in the nose. I did. It bled. There were no more slurs. Conversations about white behavior over the dinner table, focused mostly on how to improve The Situation. Whites were portrayed as villains and perpetrators. Over the years growing up, attending undergraduate and graduate schools and working in the corporate sector I met and interacted with many different kinds of black and white people. About the only thing I learned is that the only way to discover the racism within is to get to know a person and usually by then you’re friends.
Now, I’m 80. Do I care? Yes and no. I’ve surrounded myself in a bubble of white and black friends and I’m learning to share my black experience and thoughts with my white friends. It’s not always comfortable. But I find they listen, they seem unperturbed and in some ways I sense they appreciate being drawn in to the part of my life from which they’ve always somehow sensed they were excluded.
The others referred to as White Bread America seem more obvious, now. I am more conscious of negativity. Neighbors would rather remember a time when my dog was aggressive than how far she’s come over the years learning to trust and love. My ideas remain unheard until articulated by a white person. I see all this and still feel it. It reinforces old thinking and learnings. And, God forbid a person of color is better educated or achieved more senior level work experience than an unaware White person. Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 is what happens. ‘Uppity’ is a common term of thinking when someone of color emerges as superior. A white friend and I spoke of all this one afternoon over lunch during the pandemic and she asked, “How are we going to fix this?” Indeed. My answer was “conversations like this one”. One conversation at a time, one person at a time. Racism is not a cup of tea. You cannot just add hot water and poof it’s gone. It is like quitting smoking or losing weight. It takes herculean effort and personal determination.
I often wonder how much further along we would be as a culture and as human beings if we weren’t hindered by our own inability to get beyond the pettiness of color and the silliness of bias.
In Germany, during WWII there were communities of citizens who were supposedly ignorant about the Nazi initiatives in concentration camps that killed six million Jewish people. Similarly, there are huge communities in America which choose to remain ignorant about the systemic racist behavior, thinking and biases that keep the US from truly being all it can be. Holding down one person holds down everyone. Hopeful white people are devastated that electing former President Barack Obama didn’t mean we’d turned the corner on racism. We elected the most qualified person for the job. And, as a country we were right. But it didn’t cure individual racist thinking and behavior. One white Southerner is quoted as saying, “Yeah, I voted for the n****r, he’s a good guy”. Words, behavior, thinking all come together where our belief systems are concerned which may explain why it is so difficult to dismantle any one of them.
We are all where we are and must start from there. Observing our own words, thinking and behavior helps define a starting point. It can take years. It can take a lifetime. Grabbing hold of the challenge and working on it - - like quitting smoking or losing weight - - that’s the important thing. It’s a journey, not a sprint.
Patricia Adams lives in Somers with her cocker spaniel, Taffy. She grew up in Hastings on Hudson, NY, graduating from NYU Stern in 1963 and earning her MBA at Atlanta University in 1969. She worked in human resources for IBM and retired from Digital Equipment Corporation/Hewlett Packard in 1998. She stands on the shoulders of her parents the late Rev. Dr. Alger L. and Jessie Adams, founders and publishers of The Westchester County Press, her grandparents and great, great grandparents who survived the trans-Atlantic crossing and endured the slave systems in Georgia and Louisiana. She welcomes your ideas and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the Somers Record, July 2021 edition.