I’m Not a Racist – or Am I?

There is so much talk today about being racist. Many are quick to call others by that name while as many as quick to insist they are not racist and that they are tired of people using the “race card.”

While I have never been called a racist (at least as far as I know) and I would say I was not a racist, I still took a look at what the dictionary said a racist is.

According to Webster’s dictionary a racist is someone who holds “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

A more complete definition lists: “Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another. It may also mean prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different ethnicity. Modern variants of racism are often based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. These views can take the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems in which different races are ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities.”

Using that definition I think I can honestly say I am not a racist. I have never believed that one group of people is inherently superior to another.

But using that definition I must say that I was raised by a generation who were clearly racist. Let me say that my parents and my aunts and uncles were good people that I loved and respected. I don’t believe they realized how racist they were. But looking back at that generation I see it is so clear that prejudices have been passed down from generation to generation. Only within the last few years have many been able to recognize this and to work to break that terrible cycle of beliefs.

As a young adult I had many arguments with my father who insisted that black people’s brains were not as big as white people’s brains. He also had other beliefs about physical differences that I will not even mention here.

For years I thought my father was just a country boy who came up with some crazy ideas. It is only as I have begun to research and read the history of black/white relations in our country that I have discovered this was not some crazy ideas of one man. This was what he had been taught along with many of his generation.

And that terrible lie has been a part of our history going back even before our country was established.

As our country was founded and began growing, there were many physicians and scientists who advocated that there was a difference between the “pure” race (white) and Africans and Native Americans.

One was Dr. Charles Caldwell. Dr. Caldwell visited the Musee de Phrenologie in Paris where he studied a collection of skulls taken from people from all the world. After his study, he determined that the skulls of African people show that they had a “tamableness” that not only made them perfect for slaves, but actually required them to have a “master.” This belief which was shared throughout our nation served to contribute to the belief that slavery was an acceptable part of nature. It contributed to the idea that whites were superior.

Another was Samuel George Morton. Morton’s collection of skulls is today part of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and is one of the most famous collections of human skulls in the entire world.

Morton published a book in 1839. In “Crania Americana” he described five “separate species.

(Excerpt from “Crania Americana” showing the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Morton claimed similarities between the skulls of primates and African people.)

They were (in descending order) Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, Native America and Negro. He wrote that these differences were dictated by God. He concluded that Native American minds were “adverse to cultivation, slow in acquiring knowledge.” His book was very popular in America and many believe this was used to justify removing Native Americans from their homeland and taking the land for white settlers.

His book became popular in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and India. Charles Darwin called him an “authority” on the subject of race. Others applauded his work and many in European countries began to also publish such ideas.

You might think the abolitionist would not have bought into this thinking. But many of the renowned abolitionists also believed this. The apparent “tambleness” of the blacks served two purposes. One, it could reassure that if the slaves were set free, they would not take revenge on their masters. Two, if they were naturally weaker and inferior to whites, society had an obligation to help them, not enslave them.

While I am sure today almost anyone would say these studies were ridiculous, I believe that this thinking has been passed down generation after generation.

My parents did not dislike blacks. I saw them often be kind and friendly with blacks we came into contact with at church services. However, without really stopping to think, they had been indoctrinated with that thought that somehow we as whites were superior to blacks. It was an almost unconscious thing – as natural as breathing in and out.

I am not a racist and in tracing my ancestry as far back as I have been able, I find no record of anyone owning slaves. But if I remain silent when I hear or see others making comments that are racist because I am afraid of losing friends, then what does that make me?

Examples of things I have heard from others:

One pastor friend said “We did blacks a favor by taking them from the jungles of Africa.”

One family member moved from one mobile home park to another because a black family moved in across from them and asked me “Would you like living next to a black family?” My response was that I did have black neighbors and they were some of the best in our community.

One family member, when hearing that my husband had found that one of his ancestors was a slave from Ghana said, “Well, that explains a lot of things.” Was she just trying to be funny? Maybe – but still – that is not funny.

Finally, while I do not agree with most of the items on the BLM agenda and I am not in favor of rioting and destroying, I have found it interesting to see the anger of many of my white friends over the restrictions or loss of rights they have experienced with this Covid crisis.

For over a year now we have been told we cannot gather in large groups, many of our sports, our schools, even our churches have been shut down. We have been denied entry to most retail stores unless we wear a mask. And the anger is real. And the anger is right.

But – I have to ask:

If we get so angry for some loss of freedom for almost two years, how can we not see that the history of not only loss of freedom, but loss of life, not for two years but for hundred of years might lead to anger.

And, if you really want to know the history that our black friends know (passed down from grandparents) I recommend the following books:

  • Red Summer, the Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter
  • Forever Free, the Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction by Eric Foner
  • Wilmington’s Lie, the Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino
  • Life of a Klansman, A Family History of White Supremacy by Edward Ball

We can say we are not racists and we never owned slaves or we can begin to read and research our nation’s history and try to understand where our black friends and neighbors are coming from.

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