“I eat too much junk food.”
“I fly off the handle sometimes.”
“I don’t call my mother as often as I should.”
Most of us will admit to such failings. We generally feel safe enough to confess them to others, even people we barely know, because nobody’s perfect. Personal shortcomings are part of the shared human experience.
But we have a lot more trouble divulging another flaw that is also quite common: prejudice. We find it extraordinarily difficult to admit that we sometimes — even unconsciously — make assumptions about people we encounter based on visible characteristics: age, dress, weight and, especially, that artificially constructed, yet oh-so-powerful trait we call “race.”
That’s what makes a recent piece in UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association, so startling. Under the provocative headline, “Of Course I’m Racist,” contributing editor Doug Muder talks about his continuing struggle to confront the subtle and not-so-subtle expressions of prejudice he absorbed while growing up and still finds in himself (UU World, Fall 2017)
“If a black driver cuts me off in traffic, my anger flashes hotter,” Muder admits. “If a black clerk or waitress is slow to serve me, I’m less likely to consider the kind of day she’s had and more likely to assume character flaws like laziness or sullen resentment. When I am at my best, I can block these impulses before they lead to regrettable actions. But I haven’t been able to eliminate them.”
He doubts that he ever will, and has resigned himself to a lifelong battle with his own bigotry.
“I am often disappointed when I spot some new aspect of racism in myself, but I am never shocked.”
Most of those who comment in response to Muder’s piece online seem to accept that, since racism is a part of the social fabric, it’s bound to work its way into us as individuals to some degree. A couple of people who read Muder’s article, however, pushed back, insisting that his premise runs counter to Unitarian Universalist principles.
“The current paroxysm of ‘white guilt’ is an old thing – UUs have now discovered original sin, and it is a problem that white people have,” one asserts, denying any hint of racism in himself or in his upbringing and warning that the prevalence of this line of thinking in Unitarian Universalist congregations is pushing him away from the faith.
Another commenter writes, “There is a cognitive dissonance among Unitarian Universalists who claim to affirm the ‘inherent worth and dignity of every person,’ while seeing every white person as a hapless pawn of a racist society who needs to be reprogrammed.”
But a third reader, replying to this comment, hits the nail on the head for me: “Cognitive dissonance actually happens, in my view, when UUs can’t hold a worldview where they are both inherently good AND have racist ideas. So they reject the notion that they could have racist ideas. Moving through cognitive dissonance will allow us to have both thoughts at once and deal with both.”
Evolving social sanctions against bigotry have prompted many white people to retreat into a misguidedly binary view of racism, the idea that one is either David Duke or Mother Teresa, with no middle ground. Thus, to admit that we sometimes experience racist thoughts and feelings, perhaps even act on them, is akin to being fitted for Klan robes.
This is where the much-pleaded-for conversation about race gets stuck. Unless we can be honest with each other and ourselves, we can’t make any real progress toward a truly egalitarian society.
My five-cent theory about racism is that it’s rooted in a primal instinct to be wary of that tribe from over the hill because they might try to snag the mastodon we just dropped for our dinner. This instinct never completely goes away. Our task as sentient beings with moral compasses is to rise above pure instinct and embrace reason and the Golden Rule.
Admitting that we still have bigoted impulses can be liberating. It also allows us to try to do better.
This isn’t about guilt and self-flagellation. It’s about recognizing what is and working to improve ourselves and our world.