I Was Not Born a Racist


Cera Byers published a Facebook post, which was picked up by Salon.com, addressed “to my white male Facebook friends”.  I never saw the post on Facebook, mostly because I’m not Facebook friends with Cera Byers.  I don’t know anything about her except the one sentence written at the bottom of the post.

Cera Byer [sic] is a dancemaker and teacher based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her favorite Ninja Turtle is Donatello

I am a white male, and since the post was republished on Salon.com, I assumed it must also be addressed to me.  I may be wrong.  Perhaps Salon editors simply wanted to quote Ms. Byers’ post—in its entirety—to illustrate some completely different point, which they didn’t bother to state because it’s so obvious.  It’s so obvious that someone as dim as me altogether missed it and assumed that I was the intended (white, male, Facebook user) reader.

After reading the post, which by the way I thought was intelligently written, carefully crafted, and passionately stated, I thought it necessary to respond, so I wrote a reply to Ms. Byers.

Dear Cera,

Forgive me for using your first name.  Your note was written in a very personal manner, and I intend to answer it that way, on a first name basis.  I hope you understand this is meant in a purely amiable spirit.

I am not going to mock you or dismiss your letter.  I can tell you wrote it with deep feeling.  I appreciate your ability to take that feeling, and your experience and put it in writing.  As a matter of fact, I am going to honor it by granting that I agree with everything you wrote.

I believe that most white males in America totally ignore injustice.  They totally ignore a lot, unless it’s football, bikinis, food, or beer (not necessarily in that order).  Not all American men are like that, but we’re talking about the majority.  You’re also right that these men don’t consider themselves racist, and in general they are good people.

You’re right that they are not interested in change, or expanding their minds to new ideas, or seeing things like other people see them.  They lack a place of empathy for those who don’t share their life picture.

I absolutely agree that there is injustice in America, and that some of that injustice is directed at people of color.  Without a doubt, it’s true.

If you would allow it, may I offer a response?  I promise that I’ve been breathing deeply and not being defensive writing it.  With all honesty, this is the third version of my response.  One appeared a bit mocking, so I threw it away.  Another was more confrontational, so I threw it away.  In the writing process, however, I realized that we agree on most things.

First, I do honestly believe in my heart that I’m not a racist.  I not only believe it, I know it as a fact.  I do not believe that this country is “full of equality and justice, and get offended at the idea that it’s not”.  This country is not, and has never been, full of equality.  May I suggest what I think it’s full of?  (Not the cynical answer you might think, although I fight cynicism daily).  I think America is full of potential and opportunity.

Now, Cera, stop and breathe.  Don’t run to the defensive.  Don’t say “no, it’s not!” and start tracing back to days of slavery.  That’s a conversation stopper.  Plus, I am agreeing with you here.

America is a land of potential.  If it wasn’t, why would you ask me to read your note and then change my point of view?  If nothing could change, then it’s pointless to ask for it.  If it can change, then there’s a potential for change.  If there’s a potential for change, there’s an opportunity to improve things.

Equality may be one goal for America, but opportunity and potential are not goals—they are characteristics.  Let’s do a thought experiment.  In our minds, let’s say that equality and justice (I won’t define them here, just use them in your mind with the meanings you believe they have) are and should be America’s goals.  Let’s say that we in America have the potential and opportunity to achieve these goals.  In your mind, picture America with complete equality and justice.  Really picture it, like a painting or a still portrait of America.

If we actually achieved the vision, the one in the picture, we would then be in stasis:  inactive and at equilibrium.  There would be no opportunity or potential, because nothing would be allowed to change, since we would have achieved a perfect society.  It’s interesting that the other definition for “stasis” is “civil strife”.  An America at equilibrium would cause immediate and irreparable strife.  Why?  Because a perfect society makes no sense.  People just aren’t made that way and everybody knows it.

A utopian vision cannot be achieved with Mankind version 1.0.  Not in the past.  Not now.  Not ever.

Not that it hasn’t been tried.  Every single time it’s been tried, it’s ended in rivers of blood and mass graves.  Let’s not go there.

Are you still with me?  Hang on, I’m still agreeing with you.  Like you said, breathe.

Cera, I know you didn’t mean to suggest a static society as a goal, you really meant equality of opportunity.  You said in your note “that’s what people are asking for: an opportunity for status to be achieved, and not ascribed.”   You said we all want that, and I agree.  But I keep scratching my head at how to get there, because we have another problem;  to maintain equality of opportunity and achievement, we have to sacrifice individuality.

I think you’d agree that  America is not a homogenous society.  America is built on our differences, not our sameness.  And there’s the issue with Mankind 1.0 again.  If I succeed too much, it might impede someone else’s ability to achieve.  Not everyone can be a “superstar” like Barack Obama, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Shaquille O’Neal.  If we make exceptions for “superstars” we like, then we have to make the same exceptions for those we dislike.

Or we have to make no exceptions at all.

The vision of America with full equality and justice has to remain in stasis or else someone will throw a bucket of paint on it and ruin it. Opportunity and potential drive change, and human nature demands some measure of inequality and injustice as the price.  The only way to achieve a completely equal society in America is to make Americans completely homogenous, like South Korea, or Japan, where there’s only one national origin and one history.  In America, it just doesn’t work.

I know you are feeling like I’m defending the status quo.

I’m not.  I think the status quo is woefully inadequate, which is why I’m defending potential and opportunity for change.  And I know you agree with me, because you are calling for this exact thing.

Next may I deal with goals and ideas. I agree with your call to open up and “lean in to our discomfort, our fear, our panic, our incredulity, our doubt.”  I had to stop at your next sentence though.  “Open ourselves to the idea that our beliefs are just ideas that we go out and seek support for, and therefore there are other ideas out there that could become our beliefs, very easily, if we were willing to open ourselves up and expand our frame of reference.” (my boldface)

I scratched my head for a while thinking about that sentence.  There’s something just “off” about it.  Then I realized what it is.  Our beliefs are more than “just ideas”.  Beliefs come from information.  You said it yourself.  “When people tell us that something we believe to be true is actually not 100 percent true, or maybe not true for everyone, we can experience cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance: the stress caused by being confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.  I had to look it up, because I failed psych in college.

Information means facts.  I’m pretty sure you’d agree that beliefs are not just dust motes floating in space, disconnected from reality.  If beliefs are fact-based, then there’s no need to go out and get other people to validate them.  We don’t have to go out and validate gravity, or light, or the laws of physics.  They are simply there, whether we believe in them or not.

Human nature is not a matter of belief.  People form opinions on a variety of things, but we are all, to some degree, hard-wired with wants and needs and fears and pleasures.  If someone chooses to be a racist, they can help it and change.  If not, I don’t owe it to anyone to try and change their minds and hearts.  I do, however, owe it to society to keep them from harming others with their bad ideas.

In the spectrum of ideas and opinions, there are good ideas which promote healthy human relationships and society, and there are terrible ideas which are decidedly anti-social (for example, Nazism).  There are also a whole range of ideas which appear to be good but run smack into the facts of human nature.  A perfectly utopian world with no needs, no conflicts, no inequality and no injustice is one of these.

It simply can’t happen, and no amount of human effort will ever make it happen.  The best we can hope for is continual change, one mind and one heart at a time.

Cera, let’s stop for a moment and breathe again.  Hang with me.  I’m almost there.

“Leaning in” isn’t enough to accept an idea.  I wish it were, but leaning in doesn’t always lead to truth.  Only facts lead to truth.

If I lean in to your experience and your thoughts, I realize that you feel that all white men have not just an opportunity for change, but an obligation to change.  This is one of those ideas that crashes into facts.  Sticking to this will cause nothing but strife.  If we white males have an obligation to change, then no matter how many of us actually change, we won’t have fulfilled that obligation until all of us have changed.  And we know that won’t happen.  There are genuine jerks and idiots out there, for whom no amount of persuasion will work.  Are we to murder them for their anti-social beliefs?

Now let’s revisit “cognitive dissonance”, that internal conflict we feel when our world is rocked and our beliefs upended.  Cognitive dissonance can come about by facts conflicting with our beliefs, or by holding two mutually exclusive beliefs at the same time.  It doesn’t mean either of those two beliefs are supported by facts.  To pursue a real solution, versus a call to utopia, we need to present ideas which are supported by facts.  And I agree with you, that there are plenty of facts documenting the plight of American people of color (your term, I prefer to simply call Americas who are dark skinned “black”—I hope that is not offensive; none is intended).

But let’s lean in together.  The facts are that racism is a heart problem.  It’s not a blood problem or a skin problem.  Nobody is born a racist.

Let me say that again:  nobody is born a racist.  I was not born a racist, and neither were you.

Babies don’t know racism.  It is a learned belief.

You wrote

you may believe you are not racist. You may have never said the N-word. You may have non-white friends. However, there are many different forms of racism, not all of them are active. Many of them are passive, and they might be invisible to you, because you’re a white man.

In order for me, or any white man, or any black man, or any woman, or any person for that matter, to be a passive, invisible, unknown to myself racist—it follows that racism has to be something beyond the heart and mind, beyond our conscious control.  Racism has to be a transcendent state, like original sin, or God’s grace.  That sounds a whole lot like religion to me.  But I don’t think you’re trying to say that “passive racism” is a religious system.  I think you’re trying to say that some essential information, some unknown facts, some personal experience missing from people’s lives is enough to make them racist.

I have to reject that idea.

It would mean that babies, who have experienced nothing, are born racist, because they don’t know discrimination, or the suffering of others.  It would mean that everyone has to experience the suffering and deprivation of everyone else, in order to support and affirm them.

Or is it just white men who have that particular defect?

Or is it black Americans are all born victims of that defect, born into a society which has pre-rejected them ab initio?

Because if that argument holds true in America, it must hold true in the rest of the world.  If the idea that failing to accept the responsibility and obligations that come with power is innate racism, then all Americans are racists, because all Americans are born into the highest social, economic and political position in the entire world.  We didn’t achieve this by our efforts, only by our birth as residents of the United States.

Think globally, Cera.  As Americans:

  • Most of us have never known real hunger—as in starvation.
  • Most of us have had roofs over our heads all our lives.
  • Most of us were born in hospitals.
  • Most of us attended school and even graduated high school.
  • Most of us earned more than a dollar a month in salary.
  • Most of us don’t think about the majority of the world’s population who haven’t had these privileges.

We discuss how many angels can dance on the head of the American pin, while we’re dancing there, and the rest of the world doesn’t have a pin to begin with.  Are we all to lean in and listen to them also?  Or only white men?  Where does the obligation end?

Where does our responsibility end?  (Breathe, in and out, ideas have consequences)

You asked me to conduct a thought experiment.  I gladly did (I love thought experiments).

Your child comes to you and says, “Dad, I’m being harassed, bullied, threatened and terrorized at school.”

And you say, “That is impossible. You go to a good school. All the adults I know say it is a good school, so you must be fine. Go back out there.”

And you walk away, convinced that your child must be wrong. You’ve abandoned your child, because you’re not taking his or her report as possibly accurate.

Your wife or sister comes to you and says, “I am being harassed, threatened and terrorized out on the street by men. I experience gender inequality on a daily basis. I live in some degree of constant fear for my personal safety, just because I am a woman.”

And you say, “That is impossible. Sexism is over. Women now occupy relatively high places of power in this country. You are fine.”

And you walk away, convinced that your loved one must be wrong. You have abandoned her, because you are not taking her report as possibly accurate.

Your friends, community, neighbors, co-workers of color come to you and say, “I am harassed, threatened, terrorized on the street by police officers. I am experiencing systemic inequality on a daily basis. I live in constant fear that myself, my brother, my son, will be unfairly convicted of a crime, or shot on the street, simply because of what we look like.”

And you say, “That is impossible. Racism has been conquered. We have a black president. Everyone lives an equal life here.”

And you walk away, convinced that this person is wrong. You have abandoned them, because you are not taking their report as possibly accurate.

My question to you is: In any of these cases, have you done your best?

My answer would have to be, if I reacted in the first and second case the way you presented it, I have neglected my responsibility completely.  In the third case, I have to ask the question:  am I responsible for this?  And if so, to what degree?

Your thought experiment has a major weakness: it’s what I call a “scope error”.  My child is, without a doubt, my responsibility.  I must protect my child and raise him or her to be a contributing member of society.  To do otherwise is not only anti-social, but also loveless, cold-hearted, and against natural law.  My wife is also my responsibility to protect, that is if I value my marriage.  Whether she is right or wrong, her perceptions matter.  The same with my child.  But let’s go deeper.  Let’s say that I personally observe my child at the school and see that he has alienated the other children by taking on a grandiose or superior attitude with them.  Now what’s my obligation?  It’s to fix my child and teach him how to be humble and engaging with others.  I could simply call him a victim and fight his battle, but it’s better for him, and for me, and for his schoolmates if he first changed his own behavior.

My main point here is:  what’s the truth of the matter?  Just because my child or wife is feeling a particular way doesn’t mean it has to be so.  Of course I take their feelings seriously, and of course I take action and not dismiss them.  On that we fully agree.

Now let’s take the third scenario you present.  My friends, neighbors, co-workers of color come to me with their concerns about the police and “systemic inequality”.  First, I will sympathize with them; if they came to me about it, it’s the decent thing to do.  Next, I will look at the ideas and beliefs that they hold and determine what truth may be found—dealing with facts.

It is certainly a fact that many police officers deal with black offenders, and black people in general, differently than white people.  There are also plenty of statistics available that show blacks end up in prison at a much higher rate than whites.  There are more black families without fathers.  There are more black babies aborted.  All of these are facts.

The question then becomes:  what can the black community do within itself to correct some of these issues?  What can I do as a white man to help them?  Because we are all people.  It’s a trite, stupid saying, but it’s true:  there’s only one race, the human race.  Now why am I first asking what the black community can do within itself, versus asking what I can do first?  Because the scope of responsibility for dealing with injustice against blacks lies first with blacks.  Just like my son or my wife are first my responsibility before they go to other sources, blacks must examine their own beliefs against the facts and determine if they need to change.

Another scope issue is, if I am to be equally responsible for my child, my wife, and by extension, the treatment of American blacks by people who happen to share my skin pigmentation, then shouldn’t I also be responsible for anti-Semitism, Muslim oppression of women, genocide in Sudan, and Tibetan independence from China?  These are all horrible injustices, heinous inequalities around the world.  They aren’t all perpetrated by white men, but they are perpetrated by human beings, of which I am one.  And you are one too, Cera.  If we limit the scope just to skin color, then shouldn’t American blacks have an obligation to end the modern African slave trade?  It’s perpetrated by blacks, against other blacks.  The list of injustices never ends.

That’s because the human heart knows no bounds of evil, and the unrestrained passions of the wicked have no borders or limits.  Either we are all, as humans, in this together and have the same obligation to change and pursue right over wrong, good over evil, or we are simply all looking after our own narrow interests.

I agree with you, Cera, that white men must change their views and broaden their horizons with regard to the subtle tilt in America that blacks feel.  But the obligation to acknowledge myself as a racist, simply by the color of my own skin, is in itself a racist proposition.  I was not born into the “highest power position” in order to be a racist, any more than children in Ouagadougou were born into poverty to be victims.  Many of them have never met a white man, although they may be more grateful should I go there and help them than many American blacks would be for my help or support, like what happened at South Puget Sound Community College in March.  No white people allowed at the diversity “happy hour”; is that racist?

I fight cynicism daily.  It’s easy to be cynical when racists point fingers at each other.  There are white racists and there are black racists (and racists of every creed, color, nationality and religion).  I think we need to see past that and seek what unites us, not what divides us.

In America, that uniting factor is opportunity and potential for change.  Our society is less racist today than it was fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago (are you going to argue that it’s more racist? really?).  Less white males are running around with superiority complexes, and more non-whites are in positions of power.  That’s change, that’s opportunity.  I totally support that, and I hope you do too.

Cera, once again, thank you for your thoughts on this—you certainly have provoked mine, and for the better.  And thank you also for (hopefully) giving my thoughts a chance.

Oh and one more thing: regarding your white male Facebook friends who post “disturbing, subtle, insidious, racist comments”, I think it’s okay to unfriend them.

(image credit: Shutterstock)