What If We Accept That We Are All Racist?

What If We Accept That We Are All Racist?

An exploration of thought experiments that could lead to greater empathy.

I am a racist. The human race is racist.

Six months ago I started to write a column starting with the premise that every human is a racist. My process for writing often includes talking to people I am close to, in order to “temperature check” an idea. Not a single person said I should write the article. I cried and mourned the death of George Floyd like everyone else and read Twitter to find opinions like “you’re white, shut the truck up” or “you white folks need to get in and take a stand on this issue, speak up!” Okay, do I write it?

By now, you’re wondering how I can make an accusation like “we’re all racists.” Some background might help, so here it is: I grew up halfway in between.

My parents divorced when I was a ripe old age of five, one stayed in the country (Amery, Wis.) and the other went urban (South Minneapolis). I attended school in Amery, a town of 2,501, all white classmates. My summers were spent in the city. Reflecting back on playing basketball with neighborhood kids of all colors and backgrounds in Minneapolis, a city of some 400,000 people, and riding our bikes all over town—safety was never a concern, fear was never a thing. I was a kid living in a neighborhood.

Kids don’t race bait. Kids don’t care what color of skin their friends have. Kids don’t fight with other kids because of the color of their skin. Kids don’t label other kids. Kids are taught by media, culture, and their community (parents, friends, etc). They see color, judge by color, but don’t have all the associations our culture puts on different races. We, as a culture, train them on how to behave once they’ve made a race judgement.

We all use race to judge others. We can’t help it, it is part of how our brains function. What this means is we’re all “racists.” It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, you judge first by what you see and race is part of how you judge someone. Color blindness is a farce. And, if you build up enough fear, negative associations, stories you believe to be true about a race, then you become the person who makes bad judgements based on race alone.

You become the small box disease that is Derek Chauvin.

If you’ve read my past columns you’d know Daniel Kahneman and cognitive biases. And if you took an online Implicit Association Test, you’d be aware of your own race biases—we all have them. But what happens if you start to see yourself as a racist? Drop all the excuses and stop pushing it off to other areas of the country, other colors of skin or other demographics. You are a racist. Now, let’s start to become aware of all of our cognitive biases, so we can do better.

And, perhaps we can develop some empathy that crosses race barriers.

Empathy isn’t sympathy and it certainly isn’t feeling sorry for someone. And, this is critical, empathy isn’t feeling guilty for being the color of skin you were born with because others are being persecuted. This is an essential distinction, because guilt and anger are not the emotions that lead to a cure.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Understand, means a rational appreciation of the feelings of another. To share in those feelings, you must be able to be close enough to their context to share and understand. For instance, pairing someone you’d label a racist with a black person, then have the two of them travel and live in each other’s daily life for a week.
I feel fear when a police officer pulls me over, but I don’t fear for my life. In order to use empathy, you need to feel that level of fear when a police officer pulls you over. And, in reverse, a police officer feels fear with every person they pull over because they could be shot or run over, it just doesn’t manifest in the same way, because of their training. If you wonder, just ask their spouses.

Today, what does calling someone racist say about the person using the word? It says they’ve labeled and discounted you, without understanding you. I’ve been on this planet long enough, to have heard almost every class, group or category of people be labeled racist or exhibit bad biases toward another race. Once we take that off the table, we start to see the biases we have toward race. We’ll never remove them all, because this is part of our genetic code (flawed as it may seem) we will never eliminate racism until we change the color of all our skin.

But, we certainly can do better.

One of the many beautiful moments coming out of all of this is the tanker truck driver barreling into the crowd on I-35. If you watched Twitter, you would have thought this human being will not survive the crowd, he will be beaten to death. And how many of you reported confederate flag stickers on his truck. Yet, he survived and it appears to all have been an accident. That was a human event where people saw past race to see a human being making a human mistake.

I do my best to offer some perspective, and while I don’t have a solution to the problem, it is my birthday week so I am affording myself the chance to dispense with some “what if we” thought experiments. And, if you’re wondering how our firm discussed our current crisis, it started with upheaval and the same conclusion, we’re all racist, and finished with plans to do better?

Thought Experiments.

Build the empathy muscle: What if any police officer thought to have a race focused bias was required to spend a week in a person of color household volunteering to help them see the other side of their bias.

Three point landing: What if restraining people was a practiced science and art as important as landing planes. Then, we can’t have any “okay” pilots, they all have to be really good at restraining people without killing them.

Stop feeling sad for a race: What if we all admit we have a bias, white, black, yellow or brown, we have biases and we need to be more aware of them. If, instead of showing sympathy we move to empathy and get to the root of the problem.

Stick with me: What if we pause, give yourself six seconds to consider what you’re seeing before judging. This one is for those of you calling for the death of the truck driver, pause before you tweet some incendiary comment. Be slow to judge and fast to welcome.

Repeat after me, “I am Aaron Keller, I am a racist”

Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule, a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand.