Own your racism


Recently I blogged that I was a racist. At least I had been guilty of racism and was not proud of it. Some friends tried to let me off the hook. They said it was not really racism. I was being too hard on myself. I think they were wrong. I wish they were right. No one wants to be a racist—even me.

However, if we are racist we have to face up to it. Unless and until we fess up we cannot change. The great theologian Martin Buber said, “We can only be redeemed to the extent to which we can see ourselves.” We have to acknowledge our own racism even when that is uncomfortable. As Dan Lett said in a recent opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press, “…to get to a better place we’re going to need to own our racism.”

A recent Abaca poll in Canada indicated that most Canadians are actually aware of their own racism. 23% of Canadians surprisingly admitted that they had “a lot” or “some” racist views. Even though it was confidential survey I found that surprising. More than 67% believed racial discrimination was real. 61% acknowledged that racism was built into our institutions. That last one really bothered me. If 61% of Canadians believe the system is racist why are more people not speaking up about it? Where are the complaints? Why do people acquiesce? Why are so many people silent about it? Is it because they are complicit in that system? They benefit from the racism so keep quiet about it? That seems pretty nasty doesn’t it?

Yet as Lett pointed out, “it is highly unlikely only one in four Canadians have racist views. Instead the poll might confirm just how reluctant we are to admit our own racism.” Actually I think it is almost impossible to actually admit that one is a racist. In our society that is to admit that we are really bad except for explicit supremacists who explicitly think their race is superior.

Earlier I blogged about prejudice and discrimination. Lett made the following interesting point:

Racism is defined in most sources as ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.’ That is a broad definition that would catch most of us for something we said or thought.

However to avoid being labelled, many white people set the bar to qualify as a genuine racist much, much higher.

They would argue a true “racist” is a hateful person of almost comic book proportions who is actively seeking the oppression or eradication of an ethnic group. Think of the former apartheid government of South Africa: think the Ku Lux Klan and neo-Nazis. However, limiting the definition of racism to such extreme examples prevents us from seeing the more subtle ways we reinforce it in day-to-day life.


Such racists are easy targets. All of us are tempted to raise the bar high to get ourselves off the hook. None of us want to be thought of as racists. Yet, when one looks at Canadian or American society we have to admit there must be a lot of racists out there. And maybe I am one of them. That is a very uncomfortable thought.

One thought on “Own your racism

  1. whatever the level of racism vs. prejudice i am very concerned that what may be taking place is a kind of wallowing in guilt that actually prevents change. certainly to admit racism rather than prejudice for a limited number of white people allows for more self flagellation.
    and i am NOT saying there is neither wide spread personal nor systemic racism.

    the emotional reaction that is predominant at the moment is very different than understanding, and understanding will be necessary for anything to change in the long term. emotions may produce some short term change, but that is likely all. particularly given that there are no structured truth and reconciliation processes taking place. everything is simply being mediated by the media who get to decide what happens.

    long term change is so difficult because white people will have to give things up. real change usually does not happen unless it is taken.
    it is just fine that people recognize their racial/ethnic advantage, another thing entirely to really give it up.

    i, for one, am still very skeptical that we are going to see long term changes.

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