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“I’m Not a Racist,” is the Wrong Answer

You’ve heard it time after time — from celebrities, business owners, and many public figures. Someone says or does something blatantly racist; someone calls them out; and they defend themselves by saying, “I’m not a racist.” Being told we did something racist hurts, so we become defensive. We deflect. We deny it’s who we are, but it’s also the completely wrong thing to say.

This statement — “I’m not a racist” — completely absolves us of personal accountability. It says that I don’t need to change anything about myself. Instead, it put the burden back on the injured party. I’m not a racist. Therefore, you must have misinterpreted that terrible thing I said or did.

Robin DiAngelo, in her video Deconstructing White Privilege, makes the case that we define racism in specific ways that make it almost impossible to take personal accountability for our racist thoughts and actions. For example:

  • Racism is intentional. I can only do something racist if I intend to.
  • Racism is malicious. When we define racism this way, we can only be guilty of it if we intend harm.
  • Racism is extreme. Either I hate all people of color entirely, or I’m not a racist at all.
  • Only individuals can be racist. From this perspective, systematic racism cannot exist.

Once we put all of those together, it’s easy to say, “I’m not a racist.” Unfortunately, that statement also closes off any opportunity for growth or improvement. I cannot do better if I am unwilling to acknowledge my behavior. It would be like my wife confessing to me that I said or did something hurtful, and I responded with, “I’m not abusive.”

Instead, we should stop focusing on identity — in this case, the word racist — and focus on behavior instead. The question is not whether I am a racist. The problem is whether I said or did something racially offensive. When we shift focus, then we can focus on changing behavior. 

A couple of years ago, I said that I felt “gypped” about something. A friend of mine told me I had said something racist. I immediately had to fight down the urge to say, “But I’m not a racist,” and replaced it with, “I didn’t know that. Can you explain?” He did, and now I try to avoid using that word anymore.

My wife put it this way recently:

When it comes to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., I’ve found it’s healthier to think, “I don’t want to be” instead of “I’m not.”

For example, if someone says, “That thing you just said/did is racist,” instead of thinking, “I’m not racist! I don’t hate black people!” it’s much healthier to think, “I don’t want to be racist. I should rethink what I’m saying/doing in light of that fact.” That shifts my thinking, so instead of jumping straight into denial and attempts to defend my character, I’m more likely to look at how my actions may be misrepresenting my intentions, whether I’ve overlooked something or acted in ignorance.

I encourage you to take this approach. The next time you feel the urge to say, “I’m not racist,” replace it with, “I don’t want to be racist.” Instead of digging into denial, learn to do better. That’s the only way we get better at anything. When we come face-to-face with our imperfections, we have a choice: we can deny and deflect, or we can engage and improve.