Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Day I Became A Racist

I grew up in California in the '70's, immersed in the culture of new-age awareness and the struggle for equality for all people. It was in our liberal church I first heard the word Apartheid, and though our congregation was more homogeneously white than the milk now chilling in my fridge, we joined in the movement to boycott South Africa's government-sanctioned oppression of people of color.

My staunch Republican parents welcomed black South African singers into our home, invited an Iranian student to live in our guest room (even as relations between our countries had begun to sour) and hosted two Japanese exchange students. One of my dad's most treasured friends was a fellow from Peru.

We had a couple of black kids in our fifth-grade class, and in when it was time to brag about who you were 'going with,' the boy with the big Afro topped the list. (His dad drove a Pantera, for God's sake.)

As a kid, I knew skin color had nothing to do with a person's worth. As an adult, I believe that more strongly than ever.

And I'm also painfully aware I hold an unconscious bias regarding people who look different than me.

I discovered my hidden racism on Friday, September 2, 2005--three days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.

Oily black flood waters had cut off the city, and the news crews who made it in could only film the destruction, misery, and hopelessness. I'd spent two days listening to the radio or glued to the tube, furious at public officials for failing to plan for the worst. Reports came in of nursing home residents abandoned by their caretakers, hospitals left in rain-soaked darkness, and families stranded on their roofs in the summer heat, going days without fresh water.

Every time a news crew would interview the citizens of the predominantly black city, I'd think, "Someone should go help those poor people."

I thought my sympathy made me a good person. A non-racist.

My kids were little then, aged five, three and two. I owned a busy veterinary practice and was in the middle of remodeling my first rental property. The thought of going to New Orleans to 'help those poor people' never occurred to me. I sent a few bucks to the Red Cross and congratulated myself on my caring attitude.

Then CNN showed a woman who looked like me.

I still remember the moment: I was in my rocking chair watching television, my two-year-old daughter sleeping on my lap. The midday summer sun shone through the windows of our air-conditioned living room while my middle son played on our nicely carpeted floor.

The newscaster was in downtown New Orleans--on Bourbon Street, maybe--and had stopped to interview a woman carrying a child. The woman's face was flushed, the way mine gets when I'm hot, and her dirty-blonde hair was pulled into a disheveled ponytail--my standard hairstyle when my kids were young. She was in her middle thirties and, like me, was still packing some of her baby weight.

The reporter asked a question. Instead of responding, the woman said, "Do you have any water? I'm worried about my son. He's only four---" She lifted the child who lay limp in her arms. His fair skin could have been my daughter's, his dark hair exactly matched my son's. "He so hot, and now he won't wake up."

Her voice broke, and she started crying.

Next thing I knew I was standing in front of the television, tears streaming down my cheeks. I'd gasped, "Dear God," loud enough to wake my daughter.

By the time I put my daughter in her crib, I'd mentally calculated how much it would cost to load up the green minivan with bottled water and drive down there, what I'd bring (gas cans, batteries, first aid kits) and how I'd get into the city once I arrived (hitch a ride with a news crew). My responsibilities and life constraints never entered my mind.

In the span of maybe forty seconds I'd gone from "Someone should help those poor people," to "I have to drive down there and save her."

That's when I knew I was a closet racist.

Like any decent human, I wanted the people of New Orleans to be safe from harm. I was even willing to give money to make that happen, and to rail against the elected officials who'd let them down. I saw what was happening and was genuinely sad. But until the white woman appeared on that screen, I didn't feel the terrible human suffering from Katrina.

I'd like to tell you the change occurred because of the child, or because it was a first-person account instead of a voice-over description of helicopter footage. I wish I could say I'd become saturated by the bad news and had simply reached my breaking point.

But I know the truth: I was willing to leave my young family and business and go save the woman with the sick child because she was me.


There are plenty of studies that suggest I'm not alone. 

Professor Sendhil Mullainathan from Harvard University published an article in The New York Times explaining how well-intentioned people can harbor subconscious bias toward job applicants with names associated with African-Americans, and how resumes from Anglo-sounding applicants received far more callbacks than resumes where the name had been switched.

There's even a video by ABC News (painful to watch, if you're a well-meaning white person) where three actors took turns pretending to steal a locked bike in a park. The actors (young white male, young black male, attractive white female) were identical in dress and in their explanations to onlookers. None pretended to own the bike. The white male worked for an hour without anyone intervening. He got a few questions but no resistance--even when he made it clear the bike wasn't his. The attractive white female had onlookers offering to work the bolt cutters for her (a topic for another post, sadly.)

The black male made it about four minutes before someone (an older white man, though he wasn't alone in his outrage) confronted the actor, screaming and threatening to call police. 

Racism exists.

My challenge as a white American--and as someone who genuinely believes all people are created equal--is to recognize that my own bias may hide under my good intentions. I need to stretch myself, step out of my comfort zone and make an effort to connect to people who don't necessarily look like me. I need to reach out and form friendships with the parents of my kids' friends (who are, thankfully, of such a wonderful variety of colors they resemble a really great trail mix) and make sure I'm seeking identification with people who travel in different orbits.

I need to recognize my hidden bias--and fight it with every ounce of my being.


I didn't go to New Orleans that day. By that afternoon there were reports of gas shortages in towns hundreds of miles out, of churches and relief organizations left stranded outside the city, depleting an already-overloaded system. 

Inside the city, aid had begun to trickle in.

I told myself my kids were small, that they'd never stayed with Grandma for more than a night or two. My equine clients needed me. The first payment on the rental property was due any day.

In short, sanity returned, and I decided to leave it to professionals to save the people of New Orleans. 

I'll never know what happened to that woman, or to her limp, sleeping child. The CNN crew gave her a bottle of water (on camera, of course) and went on to interview more hurricane victims. Over the next weeks I thought about her often, and sent up prayers for her rescue.

Now, nine years later, I think of her as one of my best teachers, and send up a prayer thanking her...

...for showing me I'm a racist.




  1. I'm not sure when you put this post up, but I notice you don't have many comments. Why? I don't know about anyone else, but I wasn't going to comment because I really don't want to expose my racism.
    Someday, I hope no one will see color. I hope no one will hear accents. Or notice a person's age. (I really, really hope that about age.) Sadly, though, it hasn't happened yet.
    I'm still working on it. Thank you for your honest words. They're uncomfortable but true. :(

    1. Susan,

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. I started to write this a long time ago (probably about the time I read the heartbreakingly frank article written by Sugar--whose real name is Cheryl Strayed). Racism is such an ugly word. But pretending it isn't there won't make it go away.


Glad you're here!