This piece is for white people who are aware that thoughts or feelings sometimes go through their minds that are rooted in racial bias or false stereotypes, despite the fact that we don’t want, or agree with, those thoughts or feelings.
Freeing Our Minds
For those of us who are white, there are many aspects to racism. We are inherently good human beings who have been compromised and damaged by growing up as white people in a racialized society. Growing up around racism has affected us and has conditioned us to play a role in the perpetuation of racism, whether we want to or not. There are things we do and things we fail to do. There are behaviors and feelings that we are aware of, and those of which we are unaware. There are many useful ways to address each of these aspects of racism.
One of the particularly challenging areas for many of us who are white is the thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds that we haven’t chosen to think – thoughts and feelings that are racist in nature, or that we suspect might be. Even when we disagree with them, or have perhaps resolved never to think them again, they appear in our minds against our will. How do we eliminate them from our minds forever, or at least reduce their frequency and power?
What follows is my best answer to that question after years of conversations and work with other white people and with people of color, and years of trying to free my own mind from the effects of racism. This is not a quick or easy solution. Those don’t exist in this area. However, the people I know who are using the following program in a consistent and disciplined way, report that they are making progress – better progress than they were previously able to make – and are more hopeful about the possibility of freeing their minds completely.
First, we must notice what goes through our minds and what we feel in various situations that seems to be connected to race. This is a big step. Many of us would rather not know if we have racist thoughts. However, if we can accept that we are inherently good people, who have been life-long witnesses to racial separation, stereotypes, omission, mistreatment, and differential access to power, wealth, education, respect and dignity, then we can believe that these things must have inevitably had an effect on us that is not our fault. We can be curious about what the effect has been on us and notice when we unreasonably lack confidence in people of color, or feel afraid, or feel we know better, for instance. We can remember what has gone through our minds in the past and notice what goes through our minds in the present.
Reflecting on what we have thought and felt related to race, examining our personal histories for possible sources of such thoughts and feelings, and reviewing our experiences can help enlarge our view of what our struggles are and how our histories have created these struggles for us. As young children we naturally wanted things to be fair and wanted connection with any interesting person. Reflecting now on where we have given up on things being fair or have decided some people of other races are off-limits to us can help us see where racism has infected our minds. Upon reflection, sometimes we realize that thoughts and feelings we have had related to race are actually manifestations of typical racial stereotypes.
When we learn something new about racism, sometimes we realize another way that racism has infected our minds. For instance, I remember learning that there is an oft-repeated scenario in which a person of color identifies something as racist and a white person tries to find some other explanation for why that thing was said or done, thereby denying the existence of racism in the situation and silently claiming that as a white person they are a better judge of what’s racist than people of color are. This is one of the ways that racism manifests itself. I had to face the fact that I had done exactly that in some situations in the past and hadn’t even realized I was being racist. While realizing this made me feel shame, it also gave me the insight needed to try to interrupt this reaction in myself in the future. Reflection goes best when we can remember that we are good people whose minds have been infected with racism against our will and that we are in the process of healing ourselves as part of the journey toward greater racial justice.
In our current society, most of us who want to dismantle racism and contribute positively to the cause of racial justice generally try to keep any racist thoughts or feelings we have as secret and private as possible. Understandably, we don’t want them hurting people of color and we don’t want to be judged by other white people or people of color. However, that which is kept hidden and buried cannot be healed. We need to find safe spaces with other white people where we can talk about the racism we have noticed in ourselves, and honestly face what society has done to our minds. We white people need to support each other and together share what it is we want to get rid of. Having other people listen to us with respect and caring can help us face our undesired thoughts and feelings.
Feel and release feelings
This is emotional work. We have feelings about the fact that these things are in our minds. We have feelings about people of color, about white people, about racism – both historical and current. In order to heal ourselves and free our minds, we will need to feel these feelings (about both the past and the present) and tell other white people about them. We will increase and accelerate our healing any time we can cry, rage, tremble, or laugh with embarrassment. These are natural, human, mechanisms for releasing and healing feelings. Sometimes we can release feelings in this way in listening exchanges or conversations. Sometime we can cry, etc. while watching a movie, reading a book, listening to a song, or remembering a story we’ve heard about how racism affected an individual of color. Whenever we can cry, rage, laugh or tremble about race and racism it will help us regain full control of what comes into our minds and what doesn’t.
Collect experiences and information that contradict racist stereotypes and put our minds on them often
The racism of our society has been systematically installed in our minds. We can be just as systematic about making sure we have experiences and learn information that provide counterexamples and counteract the racism we’ve been exposed to. Friendships, good relationships, and even single positive interactions with people of color make a difference. Hearing speeches, reading books, watching videos in which people of color show their brilliance, warmth, depth of vision and humanity make a difference. We can adopt a personal discipline of intentionally remembering and thinking about these things repeatedly so that over time they become more prominent in our minds than the negative stereotypes we’ve absorbed against our will.
We can systematically learn and work to remember some key facts about racism’s impact on people of color. For instance, black men and white men use illegal drugs in equal percentages, but black men are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of white men for drug offenses due to racially biased criminal justice practices throughout the United States. We can learn that between 1934 and 1962, the Federal Housing Authority underwrote $120 billion dollars of home mortgages and 98% of them went to white people. Those homes increased tremendously in value, building the wealth of the white middle class and leaving equally hard-working people of color in poverty. Remembering such facts frequently can help undo the hold that false notions of black criminality or false notions of the inferiority of people of color may have on our white minds.
Choose and maintain constructive perspectives
The racism in our society teaches us harmful perspectives. For instance the message to white people is that people of color are “other”, and that what matters is our differences. We can instead choose to focus on the accurate perspective that people of all so-called “races” are tremendously similar and that we are one human family that belongs together. We can choose a perspective that our differences are interesting and can be the basis of connecting with each other, rather than separating us. Racism would have us believe that racism is too big and intractable for us to be able to have any impact on it. We can instead choose the perspective that race is a socially constructed notion that was created by humans for exploitative purposes and can be dismantled by humans, and that each of us has a role to play in that dismantling. Systematically identifying accurate perspectives that will contradict the racist nonsense in our heads, and then adopting a discipline of remembering these perspectives in every situation where they are relevant, can make a significant difference in freeing our minds.
NOTE: This piece has focused specifically on a personal program for reclaiming our minds from the racism installed on us by the society. Every other action against racism that we can take will enhance our efforts to free our minds. Everything we do to challenge racism in the world outside our minds, to dismantle systemic racism, to learn more about the histories, oppression and liberation of each group of people of color, to interrupt racist behaviors in ourselves and others, to learn the history of white anti-racism, to understand whiteness, and to build allies of both white people and people of color as part of a large movement to eliminate racism, will accelerate the process of freeing our minds.