‘Everyone’s a little bit racist,’ but admit it and learn from it

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

When our ancestors started leaving Africa 200,000 years ago, eventually spreading across the globe, the skin of those ancient Yankees who settled in the north slowly grew paler because there wasn’t as much ultraviolet light to block out; those who lived nearer the equator had darker skin. If you map out the world’s skin colors on a globe, you see a smooth gradient spilling across the continents — pale to dark to pale.

Thanks a lot, sunshine. You know what your pesky cheery rays have done? Take a look.

Two weeks ago, Bill O’Reilly told viewers of his show how amazed he was that Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem, which he visited with the Reverend Al Sharpton, seemed a lot like a white people restaurant. Earlier this year, talk show host Don Imus lost his job for making what many considered to be a racist comment about Rutgers basketball players. At the same time, debate rages across the nation about whether presidential candidate Barack Obama is really “black” since he’s not descended from slaves, anyone vaguely brown risks extra hours of being searched by airport security, we’re hiring Mexicans to build a wall on our border with Mexico, kids sit with people who look like them in the school cafeteria, and, of course, all around the world people are killing each other for reasons of race far subtler than skin colors.

But not you, of course. You’re not racist, right? Think again, bucko. Have you ever crossed the street because two big, tough, black guys were coming your way? Have you ever assumed someone Asian was smart, someone Middle Eastern was sexist, someone black was good at sports? Have you ever hoped you wouldn’t hear an Indian voice when you called tech support? When describing someone white, do you talk about their hair and clothes, but when describing someone who’s not white, do you name their race? Have you ever made an ethnic joke?

“Everyone’s a little bit racist.” Listen to our friends at Avenue Q. And you can bet your butt (whatever color it may be) that none of the people I mentioned before (from O’Reilly to Obama’s critics) will admit to being racist. How many times do you hear someone say, “I’m not racist, but... ”?

It’s time to give up the fantasy. You’re racist. All of you. And I’m not exonerating myself. Most of my friends are as pasty white as me, probably because I’m more likely to approach people who look like me. Being racist doesn’t mean you’re a bigot — it just means you judge people by their skin, mostly unconsciously.

Admitting the problem is the first step to overcoming it. So admit it. Stand up in front of the Racists Anonymous meeting inside your skull and say, “Hi. My name is So-and-So and I’m racist.” Hi, So-and-So. You can’t retrain your brain’s snap judgment center until you admit to its existence. Admit you’re racist, and then you’ll think twice the next time you’re about to judge somebody.

Our nation is certainly not ready to admit it’s racist — the trend, in fact, is to be as “politically correct” as possible. Students studying abroad in Europe find themselves fumbling to describe black people overseas — they can’t be “French African-Americans,” obviously, so what do we call them? Help! We fumble over our words trying to ask Asian friends which country they’re from without sounding racist. There’s also a whole dictionary of words that people of a certain race — and no one else — can use to refer to themselves without being racist. And though race relations pervade our lives every day, God forbid you make a joke about race, especially if you’re not a member of that race yourself. My Jewish friends might make a joke about Jews, but if they do they quickly explain, “Oh, I’m Jewish,” to anyone nearby to absolve themselves of any blame. If Jews mock Jews, is that okay? What if blacks mock whites? Is that okay, because we’re the majority and deserve to be made fun of? If I were half black and half white, with a Cherokee grandma, Jewish mom, and Chinese half-sister, could I mock basically everybody?

There’s a big difference between jokes that stem from good-natured observations of human behavior and jokes that are intended to hurt. If we condemn all jokes and comments about race as evil, then we’re deliberately avoiding a huge area of deeply wacky human behavior. Plus, poking fun at ourselves is one of the best ways to accept our weird racist selves for who we are.

So admit you’re racist. Then stand your racist self up and meet some new friends from other cultures. If you find out that their culture is surprisingly like yours in ways, it’s okay not to say so on national television like our friend Mr. O’Reilly. Or go check out one of the meetings of an ethnic-related group on campus. It’s okay if you’re the only white guy rolling sushi or the only Latina checking out the traditional Indian dancing. Admit you’re racist and you won’t be nervous about offending people anymore. Then we can start learning to look beyond the sun’s handiwork.