Humility or Defensiveness: Racism and the Human Reaction

Written by Pastor Tony Alstott

If someone asked you if you were a racist, how would you respond?  Most of us would respond from a position of defensiveness.  We are taught that being a racist is a bad thing so we have worked hard to not be a racist.  While working hard not to be racists, we have well-developed arguments as to why we are not racists.  Our arguments to defend that we are not racists are developed from a position of defensiveness. 

If you would have asked me if I was a racist when I was 20 years old I would emphatically have told you no.   Denny and Reggie were some of my best friends.  We often met at the elementary school which was between our neighborhoods.  As kids, we played on the playground.  As teenagers, we played basketball on the outdoor goals at the school.  In middle school, Jamie and I became friends when we played football and ran track together.  When we were able to drive we went to the park, to baseball games, and to King’s Island.  When I was 19, we even took a trip to New York City together just because we could.  We freely went into each other’s homes.  I was invited to gatherings where I would be the only white person.  I never felt uncomfortable or out of place.

A racist is someone who hates black people.  I do not hate black people.  A racist is someone who kills black people because they were black.  I do not kill anyone.  A racist is someone who joins the Ku Klux Klan and terrorizes black people.  I did not join the KKK nor do I terrorize black people.  I was not a racist because I had black friends that I would love and defend.  I did not have a prejudiced bone in my body.

When I was in college, a history teacher challenged me to reflect on my views and discover my prejudices.  I told the teacher I was not prejudiced.  He pushed back with questions that led me to discover stereotypes that I held about groups of people. Rich people were smart.  People who went to college had ambition. Of course I had never said any of this out loud before but the conversation forced me to self-reflect.  My realization that I believed rich people were smart also led to an underlying belief that poor people were not as smart.  By thinking that people who went to college had ambition gave me the false belief that people who didn’t go to college didn’t have ambition.  These stereotypes were prejudices.  Unconsciously these prejudices impacted my attitudes, words and actions.  It was one of those “a-ha” moments that changed my life.  I would never be able to work on my prejudiced thoughts, words, and behaviors until I was willing to admit that I had them.  I had prejudices.

So the question I had to ask myself wasn’t, “Do I have racists thoughts?”  The question I began to ask was, “What racist thoughts did I have?” 

Today I’m 57 years old.  I have spent a lifetime trying to remove prejudice and stereotypes from my life.  I believe that if I humble myself, I can learn something from any other person on the planet whether or not they are rich or college educated.  I can learn people’s stories.  I can discover that we all have hopes, fears, and feelings.  I have also discovered new stereotypes that emerge in my life that I need to ponder, identify, and confront. 

Am I a racist?  If I take a position of defensiveness I would give you an emphatic no and tell you all the reasons why I am not a racist.  The result of my response would be that the conversation is concluded.  A direct question was given a direct and decisive answer.  However, if I take a position of humility, I’m prepared to discuss with you how I may be holding some racist views that are systemic in the society I live in.  With the position of humility, I may be able to self-reflect and remove some unconscious racist stereotypes so that I may be less racist than before.  Today if you ask me if I’m a racist, my response is, “I’m working toward the goal of being anti-racist.”  An anti-racist is someone who is against racist ideas and systems, first from within himself or herself, and then in society. 

Are you a racist?  If you answer no and give me a wonderful list about how you are not a racist, then I know you are answering from a position of defensiveness.  If you answer, “I hope not,” and are willing to self-reflect to discover if you hold any racist views, then you are answering from a position of humility and you are ready to identify and confront racist views you may be unconsciously holding.

If you would like to be join me in the journey of becoming an anti-racist, Dr. Erica Lawrence and I will be leading a four-week discussion on “Becoming an Anti-Racist.”

Each session will begin at 6:30 p.m.

August 6: I live in a racist society

August 13: I am not a racist

August 20: The Real Message

August 27: Becoming an anti-racist

Click here to register for the class.