It's Okay That You're Racist (For Now): De-Stigmatizing Being Racist So That We Can All Move Forward
IT'S OKAY TO BE RACIST. WHAT'S NOT OKAY is to continue to choose to allow your racist instincts to continue.
Allow me to explain:
Racism is a lot like anxiety—and, hell, I’m not a psychologist, but it seems like racism is anxiety. And trust me—I know a lot about anxiety. I’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder since 2012, and have been experiencing it loooong before then. An anxiety disorder is essentially where your neurons misfire on a regular basis to tell you that there’s a threat to your survival when there actually isn’t one, and holy hell, it is obnoxious as fuck. For those of you who don’t have anxiety disorders, it’s basically like feeling like a tiger is fucking chasing you and constantly within one swipe, except that you feel that way all the time. I’ve been dealing with my anxiety disorder for almost fifteen years. It’s exhausting. It’s awful.
(I need a sticker or something. Or a badge of honor. Do they have anxiety stickers?)
I’ve been through years of therapy with several therapists, all of whom tell me the same thing: my anxiety is not serving me. It has a net negative outcome on my life. I spend more time existentially worrying—putting energy into worrying about things that are significantly less likely to happen than the level of worry I’m putting into preventing them—than I do actually living and enjoying my imperfect life. It’s taken me decades to embrace imperfection and unfinished projects and not overperforming in my work, but by golly, I’ve been working on it, and I have improved so much. My life is a billion times better because I’ve put in that work. I’m a billion times more relaxed than I used to be.
That doesn’t mean I’m not anxious anymore. Having an anxiety disorder means that I have to spend actual effort counteracting my brain’s instinct to be anxious. It means that when I’m in the car, thinking about how many car accidents happen on a daily basis and how many of them result in death and wondering whether the car seat we have will actually protect our kid and whether we’ve signed a will and whether we’re leaving anyone out of that will and whether they’ll be offended if they’re not included and how I’m going to need to start repairing those relationships that haven’t even broken yet—it means that I have to spend active energy unraveling that spiral as I’m going through it. I have to practice this using the tools that therapists have provided me over the years, and it takes work to re-train my brain. For some people, this comes naturally, and good for them! That’s awesome. For me, though, it takes work to make new, healthy thought-process habits. And that’s okay.
It’s okay that my brain works the way it does.
It’s awesome that I’m putting the work in to re-train it so that I have more peace in my life.
Having anxiety doesn’t make me a “bad person.” But choosing to continue to allow my anxious behaviors to take over my body, unfettered--that has a super negative impact on my family and my community.
Having someone with a mental disorder in your family—someone around whom you exist every single day—is taxing. It creates a certain kind of culture in your family that can be unpredictable, or create a kind of mood. And moods are contagious—if you’ve ever been around someone who’s just always smiling or in a great mood, you know how their sunshine can spread toward you, right? Even if it’s not going to brighten up your dark and perfectly crafted moody core, you still get a feathering of sunshine-y aura on your core’s edges. It feels warm, and that feels good. In the same way, being around someone who’s constantly angry can turn your mood south when you’re around them. Think of it like Newton’s laws of physics—that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transferred. The energy around you becomes, if only peripherally, part of you.*
And the worst part about being that person who creates that negative energy is knowing the impact you’re having on your family and feeling like a crummy person for doing it, but not knowing how to not do it.
That’s how being racist feels, too.
There’s a certain stigma around racism. And there's stigma in racism. Stigma is just a shortcut from a word to an assessment:
You’re racist, so you’re bad.
You’re in the military, so you’re good.
You’re a Democrat, so you’re bad.
You’re a Republican, so you’re good.
You’re Mexican, so you’re lazy.
You’re White, so you’re evil.
You believe in social services, so you’re a communist, so you’re anti-American, so you’re bad.
Obviously, none of these things are true. People aren’t just one thing or another; they’re multi-faceted, complicated creatures who are all deserving of life, safety, love, and understanding. We’re all more than one thing. Said another way:
We are all worthy of love.
And racism is really good at doing that! Racism emphasizes the survival and precedence of one particular group of humans who share a common trait—in this case, an assumed “shared culture” based on the experience of sharing a similar skin tone. White people look out for other white people subconsciously; Latinx people look out for other Latinx people subconsciously. Queer people look out for other queer people subconsciously. And so on, and so on. This is what worked for us in tribal periods.
But the cost of this behavior is expensive.
At best, it’s hurt feelings.
At worst, it’s war.
Either way, the result is negative. And if we’re going back to our energy-sphere thought framework, it’s contagious, and not in a good way.
It’s a spiral of anxiety to a threat. And what’s the threat, exactly?
As a patient with an anxiety disorder, I am well aware that my fear of the things I think may happen has a worse impact on my health than the thing I’m afraid of. The threat is, most of the time, very invisible—if nonexistent in reality. I have to find a balance of calming my invisible threats; I have to acknowledge my fears out loud to slow down the super-fast spiral of anxiety that becomes a harmful shortcut. I have to practice this.
I am not “an anxiety patient.” I am not an anxious blob all the time. Sometimes, I am confident and unafraid; sometimes, I am brazen and bold. Sometimes, I do things right. Sometimes, I am comfortable in my own body and really happy with how other people respond to me. Sometimes, my practice results in making other people feel happy and confident, too.
We’re all familiar with how toxic racism is. And being accused of being racist sucks. You know you’ve done something to hurt someone, but surely what you’ve done isn’t as bad as enslaving people, right? How could you possibly be evil when you’ve done so many good things?
You’re not evil. You’re just not breaking the cycle.
To be clear: I'm not excusing anyone for engaging in racist behavior. Engaging in racist behavior, much like physically hitting someone in the face, is hurtful toward others.
But what I do want to do here is de-stigmatize what "being racist" means so that we can help lower our defenses, because ultimately, that's in the best interest of all of us as a society. Lowering stigmas helps to encourage addressing our own individual bad behaviors. It allows us to face the parts of us that are less desirable (in this case, to put it mildly) so that we can set targets to improve, because that's what re-builds trust between friends and neighbors, and we are all dealing with a hell of a lot of trust issues right about now.
So consider this your invitation, friend:
Slow down the spiral. Slow down your worry. Stop the shortcut.
You’re not bad because you’ve done something racist. What you’ve done is painful to someone else, absolutely, and just like accidentally hitting someone in the face and giving them a nosebleed, there’s a need for repair in the moment. Racism is a learned instinct. It’s the equivalent of you flailing around and whacking someone in the face in the process—you didn’t mean to do it, but you sure as hell need to apologize and find your victim an ice pack and help them stop the bleeding.
When (not if, because we all do it!) you’re racist toward someone, treat it like causing someone else a physical injury:
I’m not going to pretend that this process isn’t difficult. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not painful. It’s like that for anxiety, too—it can feel lonely and depressing, like you’ve failed and are worthless because you’ve failed at doing the right thing in the right moment. But don’t be afraid to practice. The worst thing that can happen is that you have to keep practicing.
Practice disrupts the cycle, and that’s the most powerful thing. We're all cogs in a societal machine, and when those cogs work individually, they make the whole thing better.
Not being afraid to practice is better than perfection.
*To be clear: I am NOT suggesting that you should only surround yourself with positive people, because that can be exhausting. Toxic positivity is a real thing. Don’t fall into that trap.
PART OF THIS COMPLETE BREAKFAST
Blog not recommended for sober consumption.