Across the nation and political spectrum, the majority of Americans have suddenly turned to face our nation’s racist origins and become willing to see how its tentacles reach into the present. Our challenge going forward is to stay open hearted and manage our emotional reactivity for the ongoing work of change.
Usually the subject of racism is met with defensiveness and shame. White Americans like me often respond, “I’m not a racist. This isn’t my problem.” But living in this nation will inevitably populate our minds with racist ideas. The issue isn’t whether or not we have racist thoughts—we all do—it’s what we do with them. At times we might believe them. Other times we might try to ignore them, claiming to be colorblind. But we can be most impactful when we become aware of our racist thoughts and actively counter them by refusing to lump people into arbitrary groups.
Thoughts are just thoughts—we think lots of things that aren’t true or logical. But racist thoughts are loaded and wrong so they can be hard to acknowledge.
“To grow up in America is for racist ideas to constantly be rained on your head, to have no umbrella and you don’t even know you’re wet,” observed Ibram Kendi, author of How to Be Antiracist, in an illuminating podcast. “When someone comes along and says, ‘You’re wet. Here’s an umbrella.’ You can say ‘Thank you. I didn’t know I was drenched.’” When we become aware of how racism has seeped in, we open our minds, thus opening our umbrella. Now the rain can pour off the umbrella’s tips and we can see it more clearly.
It’s not our fault racist ideas have soaked us. But from the shelter of our umbrella, we need to look at our reflection in the puddles around us. When I observe a racist thought in my mind, my first reaction might be feeling ashamed or defensive. But then I exhale and decide what my next thought will be. Will I accept or challenge this idea? To see each person individually requires me to act against my brain’s shortcut mode, where it likes to categorize and oversimplify. But I know how the mind works and I commit to working harder. The key is to redirect my thinking. A thought is not the same as a belief. I can have a racist thought, know that it comes from the culture around me and remind myself not to believe everything I think.
It’s wet out here. Let’s grab our umbrellas and take a long walk through the rain together.
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