Why I Chose Not to Become a Racist

Written by Dr. Gail L. Thompson on July 26, 2018

In July 2018, I faced a dilemma that countless African Americans throughout history have faced: become an anti-White racist or resist the overwhelming urge to do so. A series of race-related recent events and news stories had pushed me to this crucial point. One incident pertained to a White teacher who put her foot on an African American student’s back. Another revealed that two CVS Pharmacy workers had called the police on an African American, who allegedly tried to use a “fake coupon.” Of course, there was the story about famous actress Roseanne Barr, who referred to a prominent African American woman as an “ape.”

Other stories included the one about a Starbuck’s employee calling the police on two African American men who were merely sitting in the café; the White woman (“Permit Patty”) who called the police on an eight-year-old African American girl who was selling bottles of water in order to earn money for a trip to Disneyland; the case of the police officer who shot an African American male in the back; the case of the police officer who used a Taser gun on an African American male who was sitting on a sidewalk curb; the “concerned residents” who called the police on an African American firefighter; the Netflix official who repeatedly used the “N-word;” the woman who called police on African American Airbnb guests, because they didn’t “wave at her,” which resulted in seven police cars showing up; and the list of upsetting stories goes on and on.

Then, of course, there were the stories that didn’t receive widespread media attention, such as the research report that revealed that African American males in California continue to be suspended from school at higher rates than other students. Another report indicated that African American Special Education students are also suspended at very high rates. Both of these reports exposed issues that are problems that exist in schools throughout the U.S. and these problems have existed for decades.

Two lesser known local stories that occurred in cities near my home, also had a strong negative effect on me. The one which occurred in 2017, pertained to a teacher who called an African American fifth grader a “slave” and told him to get out of his classroom. When the child complained to the school principal, she downplayed the incident and told him to get over it, because he would have to deal with similar situations for the rest of his life. The second local story pertained to a non-violent African American girl who was dragged across campus—as if she were a bag of garbage—at her middle school by school security at the request of a school assistant principal.

These reports, distressing news stories, and incidents caused some deep-seated wounds and experiences that were buried in my subconscious to rise to the surface. The wounds stemmed from my life-long personal experiences with blatant racism, microaggressions and macroaggressions in the workplace, schools (as a student and professor), and the larger society. The combination resulted in the dilemma that forced me to decide whether or not to become an anti-White racist.

Each day during that period when I wrestled with this decision, I constantly felt my emotions moving from legitimate righteous indignation into seeds of hatred against Whites. The question was, “Would I let these ‘seeds sprout into a tree,’ or would I destroy them, before they destroyed me?” For as the late James Baldwin said, “Hatred never fails to destroy the person who hates” (paraphrased).

Reasons Why I Chose Not to Become a Racist

I’m proud to say that I made the best decision: I chose not to become an anti-White racist! During the current political climate in the U.S., when tensions appear to be escalating along racial, religious, and political lines, and many virulent racists have boldly stepped out of the shadows in which they usually lurk, it would’ve been easy for me to “join their ranks.” However, although it would’ve been easy to let hatred consume me, and do what countless individuals have done—hate an entire race of people for the misdeeds of some—I chose not to take the easy way out for several reasons.

1. My Core Beliefs

The first reason why I chose not to become an anti-White racist stems from my core beliefs and values. In a nutshell, I believe that I am God’s child, and that I was created to use my talents, resources, and opportunities to empower children, parents, educators, and school leaders of all racial backgrounds. I also believe that at the end of my life, I will be held accountable for my actions and how I used my talents, resources, and opportunities. Did I waste them? Did I use them to engage in power plays? Did I discriminate against others merely because of their race? My core beliefs, values, and these questions played a strong role in my decision not to become an anti-White racist.

2. My White Allies

A second factor that influenced my decision is the fact that throughout history, many Whites have devoted their lives to improving social conditions, and the plight of low-income individuals, and people of color. Some of these Whites, such as Quakers and Abolitionists, led anti-slavery and anti-lynching campaigns while others co-founded the NAACP. During the Civil Rights Movement, many White college students risked their lives to help poor African American southerners register to vote. Today, Randy and Delores Lindsey, authors and nationally-known equity experts, train educators through their Cultural Proficiency Institute, and the list of White equity allies is extensive.

But a more personal example is that there are many Whites who have helped me with the Equity work that I now do in the workplace and in schools. Furthermore, during my travels, I am constantly meeting equity allies from all racial backgrounds. For example, I recently met a young White school psychologist who has become a mentor and role model to the African American students at a high school that has no African American adults. The students reached out to her because she built strong, positive relationships with them that were built on mutual trust and respect. What all of these equity allies have in common is that they are committed to improving society, schools, and the workplace on behalf of historically marginalized, disenfranchised, and underserved groups, so that America can live up to its potential to become a great nation for all individuals.

3. My White Friends

Furthermore, I have many wonderful White friends, including Lane Rankin, the Founder and former CEO of Illuminate Education (who has also been one of my husband’s best friends for more than 30 years and has been a huge blessing to my family and me); his wife, critically acclaimed author Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin; and Dr. Delacy Ganley, the Interim Dean of the Claremont Graduate University who used to be one of my colleagues. Stacy Conover and I went to high school and college together. Today, she is one of the most supportive and encouraging individuals in my life. Stacy constantly tells me how proud she is of me and during my “down days,” her words uplift me! Dr. Martinrex Kedziora, is a school superintendent, who has been a strong Equity Champion for African American and other historically underserved students for decades. I personally know of many examples demonstrating how he “walks the equity talk.” These individuals happen to be some of the “coolest” folks that I am blessed to have in my life. They are kind, loyal, trustworthy, supportive, down-to-earth, and are not responsible for the misdeeds of other racists. Just as my White friends don’t stereotype me and blame me for “Black-folks-behaving-badly,” the same is true of how I view and treat them.

4. My White Mentors

I must also consider three of the individuals who have played an instrumental role in my professional success—all of whom happen to be White. The first, Mrs. Susan Tessem, was my sixth-grade teacher. This phenomenal woman changed the course of my life by being the first teacher who treated me fairly, humanely, respectfully, and who insisted that I go to college when other teachers treated me badly and viewed me as a failure. Ed Cray, my journalism professor at the University of Southern California, also had a strong, positive, impact on my professional success. He not only taught me how to write well and under pressure, but also convinced “doubters” at the university that I deserved to be admitted into USC’s School of Journalism, and wrote Letters of Recommendation for me. Dr. David E. Drew, an author, professor, and former Dean, not only mentored me during my years as a doctoral student, but (along with the indomitable Dr. Lourdes Arguelles) also mentored me during my years as an assistant, associate, and full professor at the Claremont Graduate University. These individuals believed in my potential and advocated for me in ways that had a positive impact on my life and career. (In addition to being a former mentor, David is also my trustworthy friend.)

5. Racists Have Some Serious Deep-Seated Issues

Another reason why I chose not to become a racist is based on what I’ve learned about racists. I know a lot about them from personal experiences, the research that I’ve conducted, chapters about racism that I’ve written (see References and Recommended Reading below), university courses that I’ve taught, and professional development workshops that I’ve conducted for students, parents, school leaders, and teachers.

In my book A Brighter Day: How Parents Can Help African American Youth, I explained the many reasons why people become racists, and cited several experts who found a link between racism and mental illness. I also wrote about a former White supremacist who agreed with the mental illness-racism connection, and said that therapy helped him to overcome his racism.

As I previously mentioned, I’ve also personally experienced a lot of racism, starting in childhood. In fact, I could tell lots of related stories including the one about the elderly White woman who sicced her dog on me when I was five years old, walking home from school one day. Because she ordered her dog to attack me, the dog bit me, and my mother ended up calling the police (who of course, “gave the White woman a pass,” because she was privileged, elderly, and White). But instead of describing more examples of the racist acts that I’ve experienced—including being called the “N Word” by a White school leader, and routinely racially profiled in stores—I’m going to summarize what I’ve learned about racists throughout the years:

  • Racists tend to have very low self-esteem, which compels them to convince themselves that they are superior to others, because their fragile self-esteem thrives on their false notion of superiority.
  • Racists tend to be very ignorant and narrow-minded about the groups that they target for their hatred.
  • Racists tend to feel very threatened by certain racial groups, and thereby, fear “they will take over” in terms of resources, jobs, opportunities, and so forth that racists are convinced only their group deserves.
  • Racists tend to be very negative and unhappy individuals: the natural consequences of harboring hatred, a false belief in their inherent racial superiority, and letting “seeds of hatred grow into trees.”

6. Remembering the Truth: Six Things That I Know for Certain

A final reason why I chose not to become a racist is that I know the truth about racists (see the section above) and about myself. For me, constantly reminding myself of the truth is a powerful reminder of the importance of a self-protection strategy. Here’s what I know for certain:

  • There are well-behaving and badly-behaving individuals in every racial group.
  • No racial group is inferior or superior to any other.
  • The United States was built on the backs of my ancestors and other slaves of African descent who were brought to this country against their will. Therefore, African Americans have just as much right to be here as any other racial group. (In fact, my family has been in the U.S. for at least six generations, which is a lot longer than the families of some of the most virulent anti-African American racists in the U.S.)
  • Every individual in this country—regardless of racial background—deserves to be treated fairly, humanely, and respectfully by law enforcement, the judicial system, school leaders, teachers, employers, store clerks, etc.
  • All children—regardless of racial background—deserve to attend schools in which they receive equal educational access and opportunities, and an empowering education that will increase their chances of having a good future.
  • Harboring hatred and other negative emotions is self-destructive.

What You Can Do: Ten Suggestions

During the current political climate in the U.S., it’s easy to let hatred in all of its guises—including racial hatred—win. Doing what’s just, rational, and moral is a lot harder. Even though doing the right thing is hard work, somebody has to do it. Otherwise, we will become a nation that implodes as a result of all of the hatred that individuals are choosing to allow to grow from “seeds into trees.” If you are interested in taking the “high road,” in addition to sharing and discussing this article with others (i.e., school leaders can use it to spark discussions on campus, and teachers can create related reading, discussion, and research assignments for students), here are some suggestions:

  1. Make a choice to do the right thing on a daily basis.
  2. Examine your core beliefs and values to determine what you truly believe about racial groups that differ from your own.
  3. Identify, examine, and address negative beliefs that you know you harbor about racial groups  that differ from your own. (The Personal Growth Exercises in The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students; and Yes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color can help you do this “Cognitive Restructuring” work).
  4. Utilize Illuminate Education’s “Equity Resources,” which include videos, guides, webinars, regional Equity Symposia, and customized Professional Development workshops. The “Equity Affirmations” that I’ve created are designed to be used as weekly checklists to help teachers, school leaders, staff, parents/guardians, and students “walk the equity talk” (See “Resources” below).
  5. Deal with underlying personal issues, such as low self-esteem, insecurity, misogyny, etc. The related Personal Growth Exercises in Part 2 of Dear Beautiful! A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women, can be useful to all individuals, regardless of race or gender.
  6. Commit to ongoing personal and professional growth.
  7. “Walk the equity talk” in public and in private: when you speak about, think about, and post comments on social media about groups and individuals from racial backgrounds that differ from your own.
  8. Study exemplars (White Civil Rights activists, NAACP founders; White Equity Allies such as Randy and Delores Lindsey, Jonathan Kozol, Julie Landsmen, Tim Wise, Howard Zinn, Prudence Crandall, Gary R. Howard, Quakers, Abolitionists, etc.).
  9. Get out of your “racial comfort zone.” The related strategies in Yes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color can help you do this.
  10. Practice “The Golden Rule.” As I often say to teachers and school leaders, “When in doubt about how to handle a situation involving a student or parent (especially students and parents from marginalized groups), treat that individual in the same way that you would want to be treated if you were in a similar situation.”

Resources

An Equity Affirmation for Educators (PDF)

An Equity Affirmation for Office Staff (PDF)

An Equity Affirmation for Parents and Guardians (PDF)

An Equity Affirmation for School Leaders (PDF)

An Equity Affirmation for Students (PDF)

Illuminate Education’s Equity Resources Page

Illuminate Education’s LA Area Equity Symposium

References and Recommended Reading

Thompson, G. L. (2018). Dear Beautiful! A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women.

Thompson, G. L. & Thompson, R. (2014). Yes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Thompson, G. L. (2010). The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Thompson, G. L. (2009). A Brighter Day: How Parents Can Help African American Youth. pp. 65-68. Chicago: African American Images.

Thompson, G. L. (2007). Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Thompson, G. L. (2004). Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know but are Afraid to Ask About African American Students. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Thompson, G. L. (2003). What African American Parents Want Educators to Know. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Thompson, G. L. (2002). African American Teens Discuss Their Schooling Experiences. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

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