“I’m Not Racist, I ___”

Charlie Lahud-Zahner

Excuses we use for racism


There are many silly ways to perform soft-spoken racism.

There is the qualifying strategy; “I don’t want to sound racist but…” a introduction that is usually followed by either something explicitly prejudiced or by a relatively benign statement.

Another technique is to rationalize a statement that receives unexpected pushback. To deny any wrongdoing, one must assure the other that they are not, nor have they ever been, racist.

These people bashfully backtrack from an ignorant statement, denying racism through revealing any connection to a person of color. Essentially, they claim that their relationship with a racial minority exonerates them from prejudice.

“I’m not racist, my favorite rapper is Kanye West!”

“I’m not racist, I love Chinese food!”

“I’m not racist, my best friend in elementary school was Latina!”

“I’m not racist, Obama was my favorite American Black male President!”

These claims contain obvious logical fallacies. Does MSG contain anti-racism antibodies? Is there something about a Latina friend that immediately prevents outbreaks of prejudice and discrimination? As my dad used to say, these are third-grader arguments.

But the main problem is this: to be American is to be ingrained with prejudice. We have learned to think of difference as a hierarchy: to be different is to be less. Just as children today are learning that African-Americans are criminals, we learned and are learning that all Arabs are terrorists. Claiming immunity to racism is a lie.

To clarify, while racial “discrimination” is an actual act/behavior towards a certain race, prejudice is unfounded negative beliefs about a group. The important difference is that, while we we may hold prejudices against minorities, we do not always act upon these prejudices — it’s possible to hold negative biases toward a Latinx person while treating them respectfully.

Acquiring racial prejudice is as American as learning how to ride a bike or root for a team in the Super Bowl. At a young age, we are inundated with negative associations for minorities, associations learned through media representations of minorities.

Disney, the juggernaut of mass media and entertainment, reflected and reinforced cultural stereotypes through many of their racist characters ranging from the crows in “Dumbo” (the leader of the group being named “Jim Crow”) to Speedy Gonzales, a Mexican border hopping mouse who says little more than “¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!” as he steals cheese from the United States.

Though not part of Disney, “Tintin,” my favorite comic growing up, taught me that Africans were uneducated and always in need of Tintin’s (white) ingenuity. “Peter Pan” (1953) portrayed Native Americans to be savages that really do have red faces. Considering the media we were raised with, it would seem surprising for us to learn anything other than racial prejudice.

This is not to say that only white people are prejudiced. Having been born and raised in the United States, I cannot exclude myself from these justifications. I often I fall prey to a similar line of thinking. “I am a person of color, I am a social justice and cultural studies major. I’m not racist, I’m Brown!”

Being part of a minority does not prevent racism. 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson is a famous testament to this fact. In September 2015, Carson claimed that a Muslim should not be an American president, and has been repeatedly accused of racism.

Thus, I openly acknowledge that I own prejudices despite being a minority.

Denying racism with the “but I have a Black friend” technique is regressive because it is nominally incorrect.

Being honest and identifying the prejudices we have learned is the first step to working past them. In order to identify and work through prejudices that we hold, we cannot deny their existence. If our goal is to destroy ignorant and harmful prejudices, we must be mature enough to identify them without reinforcing the harm that prejudice carries.

If you find yourself holding prejudices against minorities, or any group for that matter, identify the source(s) of these prejudices and share them in a respectful manner. To hide behind an obscured veil of non-verbalized prejudice is to deny yourself the opportunity to grow as a person, to grow past ignorance toward cultural literacy.

There is much more to being an American, and to humanity, than prejudice. Becoming our best selves is a constant process of tripping, falling, learning, and getting up. So let us seek humility in the place of  false pride. By being selective about the content we consume (i.e. identifying and rejecting inaccurate media representations) and analyzing our learned prejudices, we have the chance to unlearn the things our media has taught us.

We are racist, but we can be better.