MYTH: “No one is born a racist, we are taught racism.” So I really wrestle with this one. I get the sentiment: Racist behavior must be cut at the root, or else it’s passed down. Yes, we need to unlearn bad behavior and teach better ones.
But if I went to every single bully in high school who threw punches at me while yelling ch*nk and asked their parents, “Did you teach your child to be racist?”—they would say no. Most of us don’t teach racism. To say we’re “taught racism” implies that if we’re just nicer and look people of color in the eye, then racism is thwarted. The myth is that learning better behavior is enough for equity. But that’s easy mode. And it’s easy to learn that game without real internal change.
When we say “racism is taught,” we might have a comical picture of neo-Nazis or southern racists in rusty trucks openly yelling racial slurs around their kids. So it’s easy to say “I’m not as bad as them” and never once consider ourselves in that cartoonish pool of people.
The truth. Ideas are not always taught, but caught. Ideas are stitches woven into systems, which weave their way into our DNA. Ideas can be learned by absorption, osmosis, by simple exposure, and our atmosphere has an insidious way of becoming the normal in our bones.
In other words, you may not have been “taught racism,” but you and I have been stitched into the fabric of systems that do not act with equity, justice, and accountability. We are not guilty, but we’re responsible.
Yes, where you‘re born is out of your control. The systems and structures are not of your making. But the unawareness of our environment does not disqualify us from participating in that environment. You take on the benefits of your birthplace. Those benefits are not birthrights. They’re only a reminder that no success is self-made.
Others take on the blisters of their birthplace. And if the words of Scripture are true—“if one part suffers, every part suffers with it”—then we must treat this at every level, both inside and on sidewalks. To simply teach good behavior is the bare minimum. The uncomfortable part is to enter in, own our duty, and to listen.