A “Converted” Racist?

Recently, I saw an editorial in the Boston Globe (September 21, 1986), in which there was comment on a suggestion which Andrew Young evidently made about choosing a new United States Ambassador to South Africa. The editorial says, “A converted racist would be the ideal person to deal with the bigots in Pretoria.”

That idea has some appeal; Herman Talmadge, former Governor and US Senator from Georgia, evidently was Young’s choice. Certainly a white person going to South Africa and speaking to white leaders might have a special impact. That suggestion is still very debatable, and were I to dwell on it, there are several arguments I would want to consider.

As I read the editorial I found myself focusing more on the concept of a “converted” racist. I am doubtful that there is such a person! The assumption that a person can change from being a racist into being a “non-racist,” and is therefore “converted” from the previous condition to a new one, is a concept which does not match my personal experience or observations.

The analogy with alcoholism is one that more adequately expresses what I think happens in the personal dynamics of racism. The alcoholic who is aware of his/her condition is one who knows very precisely that they are not free from the problem ever, and that they must be constantly on guard to beat down its temptations. It seems clear to me that some similar dynamic occurs in whites who are racist. (Here I am writing as a white about my experience, and don’t want to engage the debate about the color of racism!)

As one who has worked hard for about twenty years on the racism within myself, in others, and in society, I would be very skeptical abut trusting the judgment of anyone who is designated as a “converted” racist. That statement betrays an understanding of the nature of racism which does not recognize that racism, like alcoholism, is not easily sloughed off It does not recognize either the way in which racism is enculturated so that it almost infects the air we breathe, or the way in which institutional forms of racism sometimes involve white people in its perpetuation unknowingly or even against their will.            -‑

The alcoholic knows that alcohol will always be a problem in his/her life, that one is never free from it and must always be on guard against its active emergence into life. So also the person who comes to know what racism is must be aware that it is a presence against which always to be on guard.

I do not intend to imply that my personal experience is either a model for whites or is comparable to what most whites go through. Still, I am convinced that it has enough validity to be shared here. Out of that personal experience I think of myself in a manner which is quite different from that implied in the “converted” racist concept. Rather, I am an intensely anti-racist person and also recognize my continuing tie to racism. So I would call myself a “racist anti-racist.” That calls for an explanation of ways in which that is different from being a “converted” racist.

In becoming “anti-racist” I have learned a great deal about how racism functions, and I know that its myths and lies are pervasive in the values, behaviors, norms, and standards of the society in which I have grown up. As a product of that society, it is not surprising that I have had to “un-learn” a great deal; I probably will never be sure that I have “unlearned” it all. As one who continues to live in that same society, I see it evolving in ways which sometimes simply replace old lies with new ones, or with new ways of stating the old ones. I must be continually on the alert to prevent myself from being swept up into these new expressions of racism. The roots of racism are still there and I must be sure that I constantly nurture my anti-racism. It is an on-going struggle, for life! Racism is an ugly presence which may surface itself at any moment and, like the alcoholic, I must deal with it as a daily threat in my life.

In becoming “anti-racist” I have also come to understand that I am connected to institutions and systems which continue to function in racist ways. Those institutions are primarily white controlled, and I am enmeshed in them, my life is entwined with them irrevocably, unless I go to the moon, and I can’t do that without the help of NASA! So, even if I were to become personally “clean” of racism, I will still die with connections into the systemic nature of white society. In that sense I remain racist.

So I will call myself an “anti-racist racist” (let’s put the emphasis where it belongs!), and that has implications for me which I am afraid the “converted” racist might not see. I need constant help from my friends, both white and people of color, to help keep me honest to my anti-racism; I need to be constantly analyzing my connections to institutions, I need to be watching alertly for any signs that the old lies might find a foothold in my life again. I can never be sure that I am “converted” to some new way that completely submerges the old. I know that I am dealing with a personal and cultural force that is a powerful presence. I must constantly be alert to its temptations and manifestations.