I’m Racist. ~ Melissa McLaughlin

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…And So Are You.

The sun shines equally on all.

Imagine a 30-something year old woman.

Dress her in $80 yoga tights; throw her long hair up in a messy bun and frame her face with over-sized sunglasses. She’s breezin’ down the street in flip-flops with a reusable Trader Joe’s bag flung over her shoulder, maybe the day’s New York Times nestled under one armpit.

Almost definitely she’s carrying a beverage, probably coffee but maybe some overpriced chia, kale, coconut water concoction.

She is your run of the mill, San Francisco Bay Area white woman.

Perhaps you bumped into this woman at your local farmer’s market or browsing the Eastern religion section at your community bookstore.

If you’ve seen this woman, then you’ve seen me. And for the purposes of the next few paragraphs, it will be helpful for you to keep this image of my appearance and its corresponding stereotypes fresh in your mind.

Given this image you now have of me, it may seem surprising that I want to talk about race. Yes, a white daughter of upper-middle class parents, raised in the suburbs of America…I want to talk about race. It seems there are many under qualified people out there talking about race, anyway. While I’m no Cornell West, I have been to a Talib Kweli show and I have seen every episode of the Chappelle Show. I think that puts me ahead of the curve.

Okay, here it is folks: since no one else seems to be willing to do it, let me take a bold step where no socially liberal minded, white person has gone before to tell you that,

I, Melissa Ann Fitzgerald McLaughlin, am a racist.

That’s right, you read that correctly. I, a tree hugging, latte loving, NPR listening white woman, am racist.

It’s not that I believe in the superiority of any race or that I’m a crazy bigot preaching white power or some other nonsense. But I, like all unenlightened human beings, notice race. I am not color blind. If I meet you for the first time and you are not white, it’s the first thing my brain processes about you.

As my memory of you is being formed, you’re going in as Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, or whatever category is appropriate. When I get off the freeway in Oakland after going the wrong way on the 580, I lock the doors of my car, and I have automatic locking doors. If my car is in drive my doors are locked, and I still check to make sure my doors are locked. If three or four young black men in over-sized pants were approaching me, at high noon on a crowded street, I would notice that.

I wouldn’t necessarily be afraid of them or call the cops or assume they were thugs, but I would be aware of them.

That’s some racist shit.

I get frustrated when a “hot button” race story happens. It’s so interesting to see white news reporters, activists, average citizens bolting to different sides of racial issues faster than they can pick out a movie from the RedBox in front of CVS. It’s as if by virtue of solidarity with their African American counterpart they try to prove themselves not to be racist.

They shout, “People in Florida are racist!” “The L.A.P.D. is racist. Don’t look at us up here in the liberal utopia of Marin County, California, we’re definitely not racist. Cut us open! We’re black on the inside.”

Well, I would be willing to wager the price of George Lucas’ ranch that if Trayvon Martin was walking around in a Mill Valley, California neighborhood, where the homes were worth upwards of $800,000, some white person would notice that, even if just a second look. That second look, that’s racist!

The thing that is so wearisome about these issues is that we all react so quickly we lose the opportunity to examine our collective racism. We lose the opportunity to confront that tightness in our chest when we realize we walked into a “bad neighborhood.”

“I’m better than that. I side with the black man. Solidarity Brother!” we say. “I’m so open-minded, I don’t even notice race.”

Bullshit! People of America! Get a grip! You cannot possibly understand the sting of racial discrimination or know what it feels like to have suspicion follow you around. You are not Trayvon Martin!

Your brain is a crafty machine built for convenience. I am a racist, not because of hatred in my heart, but because of the limitations of my own mind.

As a living breathing human being you have all sorts of personally, socially and culturally constructed stereotypes floating around in your mind. They pop to the surface when you see the real world physical embodiment of said stereotype. As a result when you see some black dudes standing in front of a corner store, your mind may send your body a message of menace.

As a result you quicken your pace and don’t make direct eye contact.

That’s racism.

I’m here to tell you, it’s ok. If we ever want to live in this “post-racial” society everyone’s been going on about since we elected our first African American president, we have to stand out on our edge and confront the racist that lives in our own mind. Fear, discomfort, suspicion, contempt, thoughts of one’s superiority over another, the minor thoughts and emotions of racism, do not deny them.

I have been blessed to be invited into many different types of communities and share space with  different races and cultures.

There’s my man Ali, from Iraq, owner of the Linden Corner Store in Allston, MA. I used to go in late night on the weekends to take a break from socializing with my fellow drunken college students. He’d bum me a cigarette that I’d smoke behind the counter with him while we talked politics.

There is my good friend Chantal who invited me to a BBQ with her family and friends in South Central to drink punch and dance the Electric Slide. There were the “trouble maker” scholarship kids that came up to the outdoor science school, where I worked, from rougher parts of San Bernardino County; the kids who had never been to the beach, even though they live just an hour’s drive away. The kids I would take on trail who I would ask to sit silently by a running stream for one minute with their eyes closed.

The ones who told me that the sounds were so peaceful compared to the sounds in their neighborhood, the sounds of car horns, fighting, and gunshots. And I can’t forget my Chinese students in Hunan Province, China. They would sing to me when I came into class or tell me “I love you everyday.” And my Chinese grandmother who used to give me fruit and tell me I would get sick and smack my legs for wearing shorts when it was 85 degrees out with 120 percent humidity. I remember Andre, the man who managed the after school program in Dorchester where I volunteered in college.

Andre, the size of a professional football player, has an intimidating physical presence. I think of how if I saw him on the street, I might look away or assume him to be something that he’s not. I think about the reality of his life and the service he provides to his community. The fact that he meets criminals and gang members with a helping hand and high expectations of what they can achieve.

Even with all these experiences and many incredible friends of other races, I am still a racist. Each of these people and all the communities where I have lived, worked and traveled have been my teachers. It is from their friendship and their love that my world has opened.

A yoga teacher of mine, MC Yogi, often talks about a love like sunlight.

He says, “The sun does not discriminate; it shines equally on all beings.”

What if we could be more like the sun? Waking up each morning, walking out our front doors and radiating love outward, equally on all beings we come into contact with. It’s not a campy kind of love where we float around blissed out on clouds with rainbows shooting out of our eyes. Being that present and loving that vast takes a lot of work.

It’s about digging in and readying ourselves for battle against our own mind.  It’s a tireless, lifelong effort in the hopes that one day, we, the human species, may recognize that all our differences are illusory. The thugs, the pimps, the housewives, and the president, we are all the same. Sure, we made some different choices, but god does not discriminate, the divine lives in all beings and shines down equally upon us. This is the work that will tear down racism.

To work on my racism, I know I have to acknowledge it. It lives in the darkest corner of my mind, the part of me that I’d rather not reveal to others. If I want to change, I know I have to bring my own racism out of the depths and up to the surface. Yes, I am a racist. I choose to fight it rather than pretend it does not exist.

I am a racist, but I choose to wage the war for love in my own mind. This is really, really hard stuff, but it’s where progress happens. It’s where the world shifts. This is my practice. To meet pain with love. To meet anger with love. To meet fear with love.

To meet stereotypes, and assumption, and misunderstanding and suspicion, to meet it all with love. It is not an easy journey, not for me anyway because I am a judgmental a**hole, but it’s the work.

And if a cynical, East Coast educated, New York Times reading snob like me can try it, surely you can too.


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 Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Sara Crolick


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Melissa McLaughlin

Melissa McLaughlin lives on a ranch in Marin County, California. She is particularly adept at falling out of yoga poses and playing the devil’s advocate. You can read more of her writing at her blog.

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anonymous Aug 22, 2013 7:34am

If the true divide in society was indeed along racial lines and all white people were beneficiares of racism then the logical conclusion would be racism cannot be overcome. Why would all white people give that priviledge? I would argue that the true divide in society is along class lines ie capitalist and working class and that race is a social relation borne under capitalism. Therefore its in the interest of the working class, no matter your race, to overthrow that system and bring about an end to racism, sexism, homophobia.

anonymous Aug 7, 2013 8:42pm

Excellent article Melissa! Way to cut through the fluff.

anonymous Aug 7, 2013 3:54pm

I wrote a research paper on this topic, with regards to westerners who work in aid/development, and my conclusions were that at one time or another we do exhibit racist attitudes or assumptions but it's by no means a 24/7 running program. In fact it wasn't uncommon to see people swing from an open liberalist stance to what might be construed as racist talk. Racism stretches far and wide and is by no means restricted to the 'white' community. We do not live in a colour blind utopia, and therefore, regardless of ethnicity, racism can never really be totally extinguished. Indeed, it is essential a space is created within communities/societies/countries/continents that allows people of all ethnicities to articulate what could be perceived as a racist practice/talk. Collectively, then, people can take responsibility as well as the necessary steps to modify their behaviour, or attitude.

    anonymous Aug 7, 2013 8:50pm

    Milly, thanks for the well thought comment. I absolutely agree with what you're saying. It's interesting that you've done research regarding this in terms of aid workers who may be of the white "Westerner" power broker majority going into an environment where there are no longer the racial majority. It was in a similar situation that I realized how hung up my mind gets on race. I was working as a volunteer in an urban after school center and I was the only white person. It just felt so weird to me on that first day. I felt so out of place. In my practice now, I'm not necessarily looking to extinguish my minds ability to distinguish differences, but rather be equally present with all of those differences. Deconstructing the illusion of separateness that my mind so easily constructs. Thanks so much for reading the article and taking time to comment!

anonymous Aug 7, 2013 1:41pm

Dig the post. If the difference in thought between my parents generation and mine is anything like the upcoming divide between my generation and my children's, then I will most definitely be considered an ole racist by comparison. I think we're destined to get a lot better. At a snails pace, sure, but better nonetheless.

    anonymous Aug 7, 2013 8:57pm

    This is the exact thought I try to hang on to when I'm waiting in line for coffee. We're getting better, collectivity. at a snails pace….even this douche bag in front of me.

anonymous Aug 7, 2013 10:46am

I see what you're saying, but have to disagree to some extent. If I were to walk into a seemingly safe setting, I might notice someone's colour or race, just as I would notice someone's clothing or hairstyle – it's just part of our makeup, who we are. I would notice it, yes, but I wouldn't judge by it.

If I were in a less safe environment I would be scared of anyone who looked threatening – black, white, asian, purple or orange. I wouldn't think "There are some black kids, I should be scared.' I'd think "There are some kids who are looking at me like they're trying to decide if they want to harass me or not." This happened to me recently, walking through a less-than savoury part of town on my way home. A rough-looking man and woman were heading east where I was walking north and our paths were about to converge. I was scared as hell. He made a ribald remark, which I joked back about and kept going, hoping they didn't decide to follow me. (He laughed and they didn't.) I was terrified. They were white.

On the other hand, my daughter's soccer coaches are both black men. They are fantastic, good, kind people. Being black is just part of their appearance to me. I know they have undoubtedly faced racism through their lives, but they do not with the girls they coach – or their families – who all adore them. They are great guys.

Is it racist to say someone is black or white or Asian when describing them? Or is it just an observation? Like saying they are blond, or a bit heavy/skinny/tall… Is noticing someone's appearance racist? Seems a bit much. For me it's about what I think they will do, not what colour skin they have.

    anonymous Aug 7, 2013 3:36pm

    "Is it racist to say someone is black or white or Asian when describing them? Or is it just an observation?"

    I believe it's just an observation. Noticing race is not the same as being a racist. I am an Asian woman. When I describe myself, I say I am Asian, because I am. I always smile when some ask if it is okay to describe me as that. My reply, "Of course! How could you not notice?"

    A psychology professor who made a career out of studying racism defined racism as stereotype + collective power. I tend to agree with that.

    anonymous Aug 7, 2013 8:37pm

    Thanks so much for commenting! I absolutely agree with what you gals are sayin'. I debated a lot what angle to take the conversation. I mean, isn't it impossible not to notice race? I've heard the definition your professor gave of stereotype+collective power. Particularly I think discrimination is happening more broadly on a socio-economic level, rather than a racial one, in this day and age. I agree that this understanding applies well in the realm of politics, social sciences, and that typically is what dominates the racial conversation, rightfully so. Perhaps, I and most elephant journal readers are not racists in this conventional sense. But i decided to aim this article toward my mindfulness practice, a spiritual conversation over a practical one. Obviously, our minds make all sorts of categories for survival, convenience, etc. But our mind also limits us greatly. I think race is one of the more obvious examples where our mind creates an illusion of separateness, it's within this separateness that our judgements are rooted. I'm aiming my mindfulness practice toward tearing down this illusion of separateness. It can extend beyond race to rich/poor, democrat/republican, man/woman, etc.Yes, we look different. Maybe it is impossible for we humans to not take account of race, but it's really more about noticing our mind and watching where it goes. What emotions come up, what kind of attention do you give those emotions, and so forth. It may seem impossible to not notice race. Yes, our skin color is different, but if we're working toward a seemingly impossible goal, what might we achieve in the meantime? Thanks again so much for reading the article and taking the time to comment!