148. Racism and Tolerance

The statement “Everyone is a racist” can annoy, offend, even infuriate people. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can do damage, too. When people hear someone say that we’re all racists, they may take it quite personally. They may be quite proud of their heart-felt belief that we’re all equal, all deserving of respect and justice, and the statement “Everyone is a racist,” to them, sounds strikingly similar to racist statements. But I think the statement is often made with the best of intentions, just as “I’m not a racist” (like “I’m not a crook”) may be a hollow declaration. Not being a racist is a worthy goal, and if saying and thinking “I’m not a racist” brings you closer to the goal, more power to you. You didn’t burn crosses on lawns or block entrances to universities. You may have worked hard to make sure everyone had equal access to voting booths, schools, etc. By those standards, not everyone is a racist. I, personally, won’t settle for those standards. My best friends tend to be white, middle-class, Jewish baby-boomers, and I find that a little embarrassing. When I realize that I’ve made friends with someone who doesn’t have those qualifications, especially someone whose race is different from mine, I mentally congratulate myself. But then I mentally scold myself for congratulating myself. If everyone really has equal access to my friendship, there should be nothing noteworthy about making friends with someone who’s not “like me.” I’ve sometimes heard it said that there is no race problem in Wellesley. But such statements are always suspicious to me, especially in communities that are not very racially diverse. When a well-known athlete got some attention from the police in Wellesley, possibly because his race was different from that of most people in Wellesley and the same as someone who was a suspect, it caused quite a stir in Wellesley. Wellesley already had a reputation, deserved or undeserved, for being an exclusive community, and this incident did not help. Many of us work to make sure that children grow up tolerant. We want them to be ready to live in a world that is diverse, and is becoming more diverse. And besides, most of our religions and most of our secular philosophies teach tolerance as a virtue. Not just putting up with diversity, but respecting it and celebrating it. But like many of the things we try to teach children, we stand a better chance of teaching it if we make sure we’ve learned it.

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