Several years ago, a young woman was murdered in my normally crime-free hometown. The initial reaction was the typical, "Oh my God, that's horrible," and then they'd go about their day. When information leaked that the suspect might have been a Mexican immigrant who was rumored to be here illegally, the police had to double their efforts to prevent an actual 1700s-style lynch mob from forming. And no, I'm not just overreacting to a group of people talking shit about how they'd like to get some revenge on the guy ... they were legitimately forming groups to track down and kill him, based totally on something their supervisor at Dairy Queen told them.
That's the atmosphere I've grown up in my whole life. I was raised to be a racist, and for the past 30 years, I've been slowly reprogramming the backwards-ass logic that I was taught. After decades of introspection, I've found some crap that's so surreal, it would make Salvador Dali projectile vomit melted clocks. In order to fully grasp it, though, you first have to understand ...
#6. How It Happens
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I think that very few people are so cartoonishly evil that they sit their kids down and give them long lectures on why other cultures are a threat to our glowing, angel-white way of life. I'm not saying that those people don't exist, but for the most part becoming a racist is all about slightly more subtle conditioning. Just like every other facet of your life, it's all learned when you're a kid: your taste in food, music, clothes ... the way you interact with other people, your most devastating wrestling finishing move. The lessons you learn back then are as embedded into your brain as capillaries are in your skin.
I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but it's important to acknowledge this as the starting point, because when a 6-year-old kid makes a racist comment, he's not doing it with the ability to internally debate complex ideas and vocalize the results. He's repeating something he heard that made an adult react in a positive way. Dad saying that "the easiest way to kill a [Latino person] is to starve him by hiding his food stamps under his work boots" made the whole room laugh. A comment about an interracial couple got all the adults talking about who deserves more to be shot: the "[*****]-loving white cunt" or "that fucking [whatever animal they choose to dehumanize another race]." When you see and hear this enough, your tiny, stupid child brain thinks, "I want to make dad laugh. I want to be included in the adult group." So you repeat what you've heard, and sure enough everyone in the room is laughing because this innocent little kid just said some extremely dark shit. It's like laughing at a toddler who just picked up on a curse word and keeps saying it because every time he does, someone laughs -- and not because he understands what "rimjob" means.
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"How was work at the rimjob today!?"
"Same old crap."
I don't think that point can be overstated, because it's not just about wanting attention. When you hand mom and dad a report card with good grades, their pride is a showing of attention. When you ask your uncle to tell you more about the time he and his brothers beat a black man nearly to death with bricks because he made a pass at their sister, their inclusion of you in that conversation shows acceptance.
Over time, those stories -- and even the dumb jokes -- begin to shape how you actually picture other cultures. Black people are no longer just normal humans like you. They're cartoons: unemployed criminals who constantly play basketball and steal our white women. Dating a black person is a sin on par with child molestation. And on the rare occasion that our school had a black student, if they so much as looked at a white person romantically, it was our duty to "correct" that. Mexicans become job thieves who are only really qualified to mow our lawns and clean our houses. The only food they've ever eaten are tacos, and they scream "AYE YAE YAE" a lot. Given, I did know a Mexican guy who did that, but he just liked screwing with people because he thought it was funny. And it was.
For the record: If you ever find yourself using tacos as a negative, you're clearly the asshole. Period.
Keep in mind that this is all incubating inside the mind of an 8-year-old child. Those thoughts are taking root and establishing themselves as an actual moral foundation. The longer that goes unchecked, the stronger it gets. Especially if you grow up in a town like mine, where if you talk about "the black guy," everyone immediately knows who that is. There's no interaction with other cultures to stomp out those stereotypes, so your worldview is shaped by the punchlines of half-assed jokes and the rantings of drunken uncles.
#5. So How Do You Escape It?
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This is the weirdest part of growing up in a racist family, and a racist environment as a whole (at least in my own experience): Even though their biggest form of racism was against black people, they all had black friends and black heroes. My dad's four favorite shows at the time were The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford And Son, and, strangely, Soul Train. He never missed an episode. When I was a kid, our closest family friends were a black family ... who were, ironically, named the Jeffersons.
It was the same with all of my friends. Their favorite comedians were Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. I know very few of them who didn't own and blast an NWA cassette while cruising through town. The point is, they're not Confederate-flag-waving, white-power advocates. The racism I saw was often hidden behind closed doors or confined to private conversations. In fact, if you were to ask any of these people if they considered themselves racists, not one of them would say yes. Even though it was commonplace to hear my dad telling stories about beating up, specifically, black guys after playing against them in a high school basketball game. Or a friend's dad giving his opinion on Mexicans in general by saying, "Leave their corpses by the fence and let Border Patrol sort it out." Nope. Absolutely nothing racist about that at all.
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"What's offensive about that, John? I'm just talking about transportation!"
Even when we're not talking about full-on violence, it was understood that jokes and racially charged statements were to be made privately, or at least in all-white circles. This is important because, even though it's conditioning you to be a racist yourself, it's teaching you at the same time that this isn't behavior that's suitable in public. The first time I realized this was around age 10. I was sitting on the porch with my uncle, and we saw a young black woman walking down the block. My uncle turned to me and said in a quiet voice, "What's happenin', jive sista?" Because this was the 1980s, and the stereotype at the time was that every black person was Shaft. Yes, it was lame, even by a racist's standards, which made it pretty much the dumbest insult we could have picked. We might as well have just pointed at her and yelled, "YOU'RE BLACK! HAHAHAHA!"
Compared to the examples I've given so far about physical violence, this seems pretty mild, right? That's what I thought as a 10-year-old when I deduced that if the comment made my uncle laugh, surely it would make that woman laugh, too. So I yelled it out. Loud. She did not laugh. In fact, she turned her eyes to the sidewalk and picked up her pace. I didn't realize it at the time, but she was scared.
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She was black and a woman, which is basically the surf-and-turf entree on the
"you're going to be dealing with a lot of bullshit" life menu.
My uncle was mortified. He grabbed me by the arm and scolded me loud enough so that the woman could hear. In hindsight, I realize that he was doing this so that she knew he was totally against this sort of blatantly racist behavior. But all I could think at the time was, "What did I do? You just said the same thing two seconds ago!" He pulled me into the house and told my dad. And the most shocking thing to me was that my father, who was one of the most vehemently racist people I've ever met, was also embarrassed. We're talking about the same man who, according to my mom, once tried to punch her in the stomach when she was seven-months pregnant because in the heat of an argument, she told him, "I hope this baby comes out black."
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Note: I did not say "threatened to"; I said "tried to."
That was a huge turning point for me, because I started to question every dumb joke we'd ever made about ... well, name a race. Not white, though. White people are the setup -- rarely the punchline. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't oblivious to the idea that what we were doing was mean as shit. I understood that when we made jokes and comments like that, it was making fun of someone's race. But it didn't register with me until right then that if these kinds of things were bad to say in public, why are we saying them at all? It was the first time I remember thinking, "Wait a minute ... we're all dicks!"
As you get older, that idea grows and eats away at you. It's not some deep, introspective debate. It's a series of little observations and red flags that pop up from time to time and make you think, "This isn't how I've been imagining these people." And, one by one, those racist ideas that you've been taught, directly or indirectly, all start to smell like horseshit. Slowly, you start to transition away from being racist. And here's where almost everyone gets that transition wrong ...
#4. You're Not Instantly "Cured" Of Racism
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When you picture a reformed racist, it's easy to imagine that person having one life-changing "holy shit" moment. Then it's like weeding a garden: You just start pulling out those bad thoughts en masse, until your mind is left with nothing but marigolds and tulips and racially ambiguous garden gnomes. But, in reality, it's a lot closer to planting the seeds of a much more favorable, productive plant and waiting as it grows and slowly chokes out the root system of those other weeds. It's a process, and it moves as slow as a cheese-platter shit.
Yeah, you might not actually hate other races, but you still have a ton of thoughts, images, assumptions, and stereotypes floating around in your head, and you likely won't even recognize most of them as being racist at all until you say them out loud and someone calls you out on it. And, man, being called out on it is just the worst feeling. Well, aside from actually being the victim of racism. I'd imagine that's probably a worse feeling.
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"Yeah, a little bit."
You find yourself making up the most bizarre excuses in order to avoid admitting that what you said or did was wrong. For example, not more than five years ago, I owned a small, throw-away site where I was experimenting with writing as an extremely specific character called "The Angry Truck Washer." He was based on a real job that I had just left, washing semis and dealing with truckers all day, and that character was my way of dumping all of the rage that I had built up over the years. I know it sounds stupid, but it was better than spray-painting dicks on the sides of their trailers.
As this character, I wrote an article about how much we, as employees, hated foreign truckers. Specifically, ones from India. I went on a very long rant about how cheap they were. About how bad it smelled when they opened their doors to get out. I ranted about how picky they were with the service and how none of them got their truck cleaned until the Department Of Transportation forced them to. I talked about how when we saw a truck pulling into the driveway with an "Indian name" written on the side, every one of us would roll our eyes and say, "Fuck." At its core, I was saying pretty blatantly that Indian people were filthy, smelly, cheap assholes who take care of themselves or their property only when they're legally forced to. And we hated them. All of them.
Nope. Absolutely nothing racist about that at all.
A few days after posting that article, one of my old friends called me out on it. He didn't mince words -- he came right at me with how blatantly racist the article was. No, wait, not how racist the article was ... how racist I was. I was about as pissed off as I've ever been. How dare he call me a racist? I defended that the voice of the story was told through a fictional narrator who was racist. I said that the whole point was to hate that character because of how racist he was. I tried to explain it away as if I wasn't talking about people from India ... I was talking about truckers from India. I blamed him for not being smart enough to see what I was doing. Not once did I admit or even consider the idea that I was wrong.
The truth is, I was absolutely wrong. We're talking Jenny McCarthy levels of wrong. I was hiding behind a "character" (who was obviously meant to be me) in order to write about things that I couldn't say under my own, real name. And this was a full 25 years after I had originally realized that "racist" was something I didn't want to be. To anyone from India, I sincerely apologize. And to the person who called me out, I apologize to you as well. It was not only wrong of me to write the things that I did, but it was wrong of me to blame and strike back at a person who was standing up for what was right.
And that brings up a point that I don't think many people really understand ...