It seems we keep having people make racist remarks and then proclaim, defensively, that they are not racists. Some people are so hostile that their claims of innocence are both laughable and infuriating, but others seem genuinely bemused by the accusation that they are racist. It doesn’t seem possible that anyone could be so clueless, their critics think, that their attitudes would not be obvious to them. In other cases, people strive with everything they have against being racist, only to find to their dismay and horror that they have unconscious racial biases.
In order to sort things out, I think we need to recognize a few categories of racism:
1. Overt racial hostility. In this category we have white supremacists (or other kinds of supremacists, even, depending on your location and circumstances). People in this category believe other races are inferior and will not apologize for saying so. We can renounce them, but we aren’t likely to shame them, as they are quite self-righteous in their belief in their own superiority (leaving their latent fears and anxieties aside for the moment).
2. Racial Prejudice. Some people say they don’t hate anyone or want anyone harmed, but they just happen to believe it is a brute fact that people from different races are different and have different abilities and preferences. People in this category can be the most confounding, as they might say things that are outlandish to the rest of us and then become extremely offended that anyone could possibly accuse them of racism. “I don’t hate such and such people, but they sure hate hard work. God love ‘em.”
3. Racial insensitivity. Sometimes people genuinely don’t mean any harm at all but have no idea how their comments may hurt others. Assuming a person of a particular race enjoys a certain kind of music, dance, food, or whatever may seem completely reasonable to you while it reduces that person to a broad stereotype. Even if the person does happen to like that music or food, he or she may resent you making any assumptions about their taste based merely on race or ethnicity.
4. Racial privilege. A member of my family once said he couldn’t understand why certain groups were always complaining about police harassment. He mentioned that he had many experiences with the police and he had always been treated with respect and courtesy. It didn’t occur to him that his skin color, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class had anything to do with his treatment. That certain groups are targeted for mistreatment seemed inconceivable to him because he never had to experience what others endure regularly. This is the nature of racial privilege. (Yes, many kinds of privilege exist, but they aren’t relevant to this discussion.)
5. Unconscious and undesired racial bias. Finally, we all have biases without realizing it. When people take psychological tests (you can take one here) to see what biases they have, they may be chagrined to find they are biased against others without wanting to, but some of us are even surprised to find we hold implicit biases against our own social groups. Even those who are aware of no bias whatsoever find that some biases are so deeply entrenched that they are difficult to detect. Ironically, those with the least ill feelings toward other races are, in my experience, more aware of implicit bias. Confront an obvious racist about overt racial attitudes, and he or she will often declare, loudly, that he or she is completely indifferent to race. In my experience, those who are most committed to ending racial prejudice are the ones who are also most willing to examine their own implicit biases. Such is life.