After a recent event where I spoke about racial identity, a white woman sidled up to me, leaned in close so no one near us could hear, and said, “I’m racist.” Many people would be repelled. I was entranced. Here was someone who could tell me first hand how the racist mind worked. Social scientists have done studies on Klansmen and Neo-Nazis but those sorts of people are outliers, socially and mentally, while this woman was the sort of person you might encounter on a normal day. She seemed indicative of the sort of racist mind we’d be mostly likely to meet. She seemed normal. So I decided to talk to her and find out how her mind worked.
I just have these thoughts,” she said, almost whispering into my ear. I felt like she was confessing as if I were her priest. “My mind just goes places. I can’t control it. I know it’s wrong but I can’t help myself. I say, Don’t think like that! But it’s what people told me when I was younger.” Then she leaned back and someone else said hello and our moment of penance concluded.
I wanted to hear more but I had heard enough to understand. She had mental habits based on ideas implanted long ago that had taken root in her subconscious. She’s got various stereotypes and biases firmly lodged in her long-term memory where she stores things like how to ride a bike. That’s why the thoughts feel like they come at her automatically and beyond her control—“My mind just goes places.” At this point, unlearning those perceptions would be as hard as unlearning bike-riding—if there were near-constant media messages and social reinforcements about how to ride a bike. And yet society has also taught her that she should be ashamed to judge people in this way. It’s sad that she knows she should not think racist thoughts but cannot stop herself because the lessons were learned and reinforced so well.