One of my greatest, personal challenges is to acknowledge and correct a fundamental part of who I am – a racist.
It’s not like I put on a white hood and roam around fire bombing black churches. No, what I am talking about is an unconscious thing, and something more systemic, more enabling of the racism that caused George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last week and Christian Cooper’s encounter with a racist white woman in Central Park that could have ended the same. It relates to the fundamental problem we face in America – believing the myth of equal opportunity.
As a tall, blonde, white guy, I wake up every morning, go out into the world and feel safe and validated, thinking that’s the way it is for everyone. Why would I think any differently?
I’m incapable of truly understanding what it means to leave my home each day and feel less than when:
a teacher skips over me, time and time again, picking other students to answer the questions;
I say I’m a scientist and people look incredulously, responding, “Wow! How did you end up doing that?”;
I get pulled over by a cop for looking like a suspect – as people of color experience over and over again;
being mistaken for the janitor.
It is inconceivable to me that I would ever be questioned watching birds in a park, like Christian Cooper was by Amy Cooper. I can not imagine having a cop’s knee on my neck for nearly nine minutes. I can’t imagine being George Floyd.
Therein lies the problem, the racism. I will never truly understand what it means to be a person of color in a white world. I can imagine, but I will never really be able to feel it deeply. As a consequence, I will forever struggle with recognizing the pains of racism, and being aware of the privilege that allows me to go out into the world without feeling invalidated by countless daily facial shifts when people look at me, the condescending words, or a final knee on my neck. It is when I take for granted my privilege, fail to recognize and do what I can to heal the wounds people of color have reopened everyday, that I allow racism to poison my life.
Although racism is, by definition, having the power to actualize personal bias and bigotry against others, as the police officer who killed George Floyd had, we enable that power by our silence.
Racism is similar to any addiction, in terms of its intractable presence in your life. You didn’t seek it out. It happened to you. But once it becomes part of your mind and body, by upbringing or societal conditioning, it’s always there. It requires constant vigilance to keep at bay. You have to admit you have a problem, recognize its triggers, and work at staying sober. Without doing so, the symptoms of the underlying disease will come back when you least expect it. When you let your guard down. That comment that slips out. That person you don’t invite. That vote you cast. That feeling you have when one of them shows up. The neck you place your knee on.
This is what the racist within looks like.
When was the last time you had a person of color at your home for dinner? When was the last time you have had a person of color spend the weekend with you?
Drew Lanham, an ornithologist at Clemson University, was the first person who helped me recognize the inner racist within. He was the one who helped me recognize that organizations should be embarrassed, ashamed, when there are no people of color in attendance at their events.
I met Drew after his keynote at the 2016 Society for Conservation Biology convention, in Madison, Wisconsin. Out of about 600 attendees in the room, he was the only black person I saw. I didn’t notice that before his talk. I notice it all the time now. Noticing – the first step to curing the racism within.
Drew showed a video he produced as part of his keynote. It helps explain that what happened to Christian Cooper, the black birdwatcher, is nothing new – to people of color.
For me, the most influential part of Drew’s presentation happened afterwards, while he was talking with with a group of about six students – mostly people of color. I sat nearby and listened. The point that struck me was when he said there is a heaviness to a person, a weight they carry, when he or she has to constantly think about who they are and how they don’t fit into the society in which they live – when they walk into a conservation conference and see only white faces. Or when they see flashing red lights in their rear-view mirror.
So why were there so few people of color in attendance at a conference that celebrated Nature, biology, and investigating the wonders of the natural world? I never asked before. I do now. It’s a question that needs to be asked, always, followed up by a committed solution.
The same absence occurred at the 2018 California Native Plant Society (CNPS) conference in Los Angeles. I invited a good friend, John Sanders, to be part of our special session on chaparral. He was the only black man that I noticed in attendance. I met John at the 2016 Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education conference in Malibu. Yes, he was the only black man there too. He was sitting at a picnic table, alone, having lunch. Hundreds of other people were there too, at other tables.
John gave an excellent presentation at the CNPS conference about his work educating young people at Camp Keep, an outdoor education program in San Luis Obispo, and his own program he runs over the summer, the Delphinus School of Natural History.
Lots of people came up to John afterwards, including CNPS organizers. It was like he was a celebrity. Lots of promises of collaboration were made. First came an offer to write an article for a CNPS publication. This was supposed to be followed by further outreach efforts. The article was published, but nothing has transpired since. Unfortunately, this failure to follow through is not uncommon. The novelty of having a black man help diversify an organization wears off easily. The initial intent was sincere, it’s just that racism is forever working. (Addendum – CNPS did follow up with John in 2022 and he is now helping to organize the next conference).
In my efforts to diversify our own programs, my privilege has continually gotten in the way. In a chaparral field guide we produced, I described dodder, a California native plant that is a somewhat friendly parasite on other native plants like buckwheat and laurel sumac, as having “flesh-colored” threads. If you can’t figure out what’s wrong with that, ask a person of color. I couldn’t at the time I wrote it. The newer addition removed the racism. As I was driving through what I saw as a beautiful oak woodland with a friend, I continually pointed out how inspiring it all was. My friend turned to me and said the place was terrifying. “Those are the trees where they lynch people like me.” My friend has indigenous Guatemalan blood running through his veins and has the beautiful, dark, brown skin to match. While describing the benefits of Nature to a group of docents at Topanga State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains, I said, “Nature relaxes the soul, it provides a safe place to discover your true self.” A ranger in attendance reminded me that while my perspective was certainly true, it was only true for people in the dominant culture. She described the first thing she has to do with groups of kids from inner city schools who are visiting the park. She has to help them not be frightened of Nature, of snakes, of dirt. After all, this is a wild place, a rural place, a place where white people are. It’s where white people have taken people of color to be lynched.
Bringing Nature to kids of color is going to take a lot more than outdoor education grants for inner city schools and and a diversity coordinator who is often one of the only people of color to be found in organizations. It is going to take guts for white people, rich or poor, to look in the mirror and say, “My name is…, and I’m a racist.” Admitting this does not mean you’re acknowledging your KKK membership. What is means is that you are acknowledging the inherent bias that you contribute as being part of the dominant culture, and are aware that you need treatment to help cure the disease, no matter what form it takes.
Taking privilege for granted, marginalizing the “other,” minimizing the sacredness of life, forcing your knee into the neck of a black man, all are manifestations of the same poison, the same delusion, the same ignorance that is fed by myth of the dominant culture, the myth of superiority. And in the United States, this myth is ever more powerful because it’s shrouded by another, the myth of equality. It’s a poison that allows normally nice people to do horrible things.
And dare I say it is the poison that causes the same blindness allowing people, bureaucracies, corporations, and organizations to ignore, dismiss, or be ignorant of the sacredness of non-human life, be it wolves, gophers, or entire living ecosystems. It goes by many names: “processing,” “taking,” “mitigation,” “clearance.” Anything that gets in the way of the dominant culture is subject to removal. Let’s just cut the Orwellian bullshit and call it what it is – the destruction of life.
Equal opportunity programs, legislation, participating in polarizing discussions on internet platforms designed to encourage rage, or donations to your favorite cause are not going to neutralize the poison of racism or the myth of superiority. It is going to take individual action. You are going to need to make the conscious effort to move beyond your social group, to get to know the “other,” until the other no longer exists as other. You are going to need to recognize the racist within, admit it, and do the hard inner work you need to do to heal.
This post is dedicated to Sammy, the wonderful human being who took care of our family’s yard when I was a kid. He started his gardening business after he was released from the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp.
Dear Rick, thank you for this. And for admitting that you are a racist. I too am a racist–my father ranted about non-whites a lot. Asians, Africans, African-Americans, Mexicans. (I’m of eastern European heritage.) [Side note: When I was 7-years old my 3-year old sister died from a brain tumor. This was the early 60s. My father delivered mail in Chicago. And even though he ranted and raved about anyone NOT white, a post office FRIEND of his attended my sister’s service. This friends was black. Makes my head spin.] I’ll need to read this piece again after I’ve cooled off from whacking weeds outside. The one thing I did catch is that you mentioned a cure for racism. There is no cure as there is no cure for alcoholism. I like your comment about “working to stay sober.” Right on.
And it’s hard to avoid making privileged comments. It really is a work in progress. Peace.
Let’s stop seeing “DIFFERENCE” as a threat, and begin seeing it as a gift.
Well done Rick, the only critique is the often unintentional hybridization of Racism, Bigotry, and Bias. In order to be a Rascist, you need to be in a position if power that gives you the ability to “directly” affect the lives of others. (Voting, housing, credit, banking, real estate, schooling etc.) Bigotry and Bias are learned attitudes, passed down at the dinner table, or offhand comments or inaction in the face of discrimination. Privalage is never having to worry if the color if your skin will be a disadvantage, its growing up in a world that was designed from its’ enception to benefit one race above all others.
Thanks John. I added a sentence that hopefully clarifies:
Although racism is, by definition, having the power to actualize personal bias and bigotry against others, as the police officer who killed George Floyd had, we enable that power by our silence.
Thanks Rick: Taking privilege for granted, marginalizing the “other,” minimizing the sacredness of life, forcing your knee into the neck of a black man, all are manifestations of the same poison, the same delusion, the same ignorance that is fed by myth of the dominant culture, the myth of superiority.
At first, I thought, “What a deeply thoughtful and thought provoking article. However, there must be better words than racist or racism to use.” Like you, I have struggled with the fact that so few people of color exist in what I do now, as a Forest Therapy Guide, or inmost of the places I’ve worked or played. I liked to think that I was enlightened.the words racist and racism make my guts squirm in discomfort. How could they apply to me? My brother-in-law and nieces are people of color. I feel awful when I hear about violence against anyone, regardless of color. …And, yet… somehow this uncomfortable place you have placed me in rings true. My heart feels shaken and unsteady; it occurs to me it is .not unlike how someone of color feels whenever they experience any bigotry, however it was intended.
I am spending much time these days in self-examination. Sadly, my FEAR is that few who really need to do so will. My HOPE is that enough of us who care will. Thank you for putting this out.
Teresa, you’ve expressed so much of what is in my heart as well. I, like you, feel extremely uncomfortable with the place I have found myself. But as I know you know, positive change occurs only when the pain of remaining the same becomes more than the pain of change.
Thank you Rick for taking the time to do what we all should do…mindfully search our souls to unearth any beliefs or practices within us that might support an inherently unequal system. Choosing the curious learner path and acting from a place of always seeking to improve and adopt more inclusive practices must be our mutual goal.
Wonderful admissions. So cleansing. We also have to say that we “got” racism growing up from people around us. We weren’t born with racism and it’s not something kids “requested” from the culture. And yet, we’re imprinted with it, and the first thing progressives, especially, have to do is stop denying that we’re heavy with racist feelings, many of them unaware and unconscious. We’re not “Klansmen,” but we’re part of the problem. (Many progressives/liberals will say with horror, “I’m not racist!”) One of my big hopes is that young kids are lately being far more inclusive, with white kids mixing with black, brown, gay, transgender kids in friendships, relationships, and marriages. Our increasingly “biracial” and “multi-racial” population will be way ahead of us “old white guys.”
Thank you. It is hard to work internally to see how I can make myself a better person, and this gives some perspective. My racism is born of privilege. My avenues for engaging with people of color have been limited. I am embarrassed and want to say “but I…” a lot. But I won’t here, today. And I hope I will do better, and not just try to pretend I am doing something.
I am just sorry.
I do what I do. If I encounter a person of color that’s respectable, I respect him. A person of color that burns a man’s business down or loots his property is vermin. And to inflict harm on anybody that wasn’t directly involved is bottom of the barrel scum. No matter what color you are. You can feel guilty about it if you like, but blacks kill blacks everyday and it’s not racism. This stupid cop killed a black man that was helpless. That cop needs to be thrown in general population and let the black prisoners have him. But you dont know he killed floyd out of racism, so get off your podium.
I think one important difference between us here, Jeff, is that I know the podium I have has been supported and facilitated by my privilege.
You’re entitled to feel guilty if it helps ease your conscience. However, Your use of the term racism is alarming and speaks volumes of your “White Privilege”
guilt. I personally am offended by the term white privilege and I still dont understand your assumption that it was racism that killed Mr. Floyd.
I do appreciate your environmental work and I’m not opposed to your questioning the motives of the events. Now As far as more minorities being involved in conservation it’s possible it’s just cultural and not “White Privilege” that keeps them away.
White privilege doesnt exist except in the minds of those with a guilty conscience
Jeff, I rejoice in all I have built, in the products I have produced, and the family I have raised. I don’t feel guilty in the least. I don’t find guilt a particularly productive emotion. In fact, I find it quite annoying to listen to those who whine about all the unequal treatment in the world, express how guilty they feel, but who fail to work on changing their own lives to help correct the problems they see.
I can, however, still recognize that being a tall, blonde white guy has offered me automatic benefits that are denied people of color. In recognizing that, I have empathy for those who are subjected to daily reminders that they do not belong. I know you recognize our country, our species, has a long history of dehumanizing those who are different from us.
Being a scientist, I search for data to confirm or reject conclusions. In this, the data is clear. If you are a person of color, you are at a distinct disadvantage in this country. I don’t know if the cop who killed Floyd was a racist, but I do know no one can behave the way he did without deep anger inside and the ability to dehumanize another human being. That kind of internal pathology can either lead to racism or is a symptom of it. Based on what I know, I think it is reasonable to conclude that racism was indeed a factor.
When people take to the streets, there is something wrong. Rather than trying to suppress it, as the current administration in Washington is advocating, we need to look into the problem and address it. This essay is my personal attempt to do so – not out of guilt, but out of empathy and my sincere concern over the state of our country. For me, correcting the internal and societal causes of inequality is the most important task we have before us.
Well said sir. We do share a love of the environment. And not that it matters, but many many of us Republicans do support environmental issues. Good day to you.😉
Thank you, Jeff.
If you just assume all looters are black..guess where your conclusions lead you.. In fact police cheifs show in city after city the mobilization of whites coming in doing plenty of damage…you might not realise how your assumptions lead to the addition of the vitriol …
When did I attach a race to the looters? Listen, I despise crappy behavior no matter your race. I simply dont believe white privilege exists, and nobody has proven the crime was racism, Nobody. I support your work, but I disagree with your assumptions. And it’s possible a races arent more involved in conservation because it’s just not interesting to them. I.e. cultural.
Alright Jeff … I hear that you feel you did nothing to feel guilty of personally because it isn’t your fault that there are inequities, and it is not… this might help with the idea ..here is a coach talking to his students out on the field I hope you take a look.
This has always been an incredibly powerful message. Thank you.
Rick, you’re a real gem. Ruth Barry
Thank you, Rick for this essay. It speaks to our condition well. We have much work to do – and let’s do it.
Well said. More of us need to admit what you have. From one racist to another, thank you.
What a great essay. I’m with you.
Thanks Rick for the excellent essay.
Its noble of you to admit such a profoundly evil flaw. There are many charities that support the victims of your racism. I can put you in touch with several.
I’d love to know them. I haven’t donated any $ lately, but plan on contributing to San Diego’s World Beat Center. Thank you for the reminder.
Rick, you’re a warrior. John, so are you. Thank you both for your courage and vulnerability. So thankful to be working with you to safeguard California’s ecologic heritage!
Thank you so much for posting this. I wrote something in a very similar vein this past weekend, but have so far been to cowardly to post it publicly. Now I am inspired to take another look and see if I can get it out there.
Rick, thanks for this. Kind of out of the box and taking a risk not related to your important conservation work. So even more impactful. A lot of resonance with my own life experiences as a tall blond white man working in outdoor education.
Thanks John. It is the defining issue of our day. Everything else will follow if we can get this right.
Rick, you have clearly explained thoughts that I have had but have never been able to coherently express, to myself or to others. I consider the term “white privilege” an epithet, similar to many others associated with race or ethnicity, but unfortunately its’ use cannot be denied. Your piece is an eyeopener to our inner selves and a challenge to action. Thank you.
Thank you, Gerald.
From Lanny at https://herbwalks.com/
Thanks for sharing your heartfelt thoughts. My perspective comes from having volunteered for Dr. King’s SCOPE Project in the South in 1965-66 and a lifetime of supporting African-American and Native American rights. I choose not to label myself a “racist” and own that definition because that is not who I am. I do acknowledge that I cannot help but benefit from my white privilege in America even though, ironically, I am the son of a Holocaust refugee who escaped Austria to come here as a survivor of anti-Semitic racism. I also recognize that as a product of growing up in this culture I am a recovering “racialist.” These are subtle but important distinctions I learned from my 1964 UCSB anthropology professor C. Loring Brace who went on to write the brilliant book, ” ‘Race’ is a Four-Letter Word.” A racist actively uses his so-called race and perceived superiority to demean and take advantage of other so-called races. A racialist is one who, through years of miseducation and shared language, believes in the utterly baseless concept of race and uses language that perpetuates that concept. One of many steps we must take is to once and for all debunk the thoroughly unscientific concept of race. There are no races of humans, just Homo sapiens.
We posted this for Lanny as for some reason the site got cranky and wouldn’t let him submit his comment.
Thank you for introducing Drew Lanham’s work. My reading list is getting heavier. His article “Forever Gone” particularly speaks to us in our shared sense of loss and consternation with the fickle, exploitative use of land and the people that live and lived therein. He likens human causes that contribute to extinction to hate crimes, avoidable extinction of species to genocide. In that context, he is powerfully right.
Drew has written some wonderful things. Way ahead of his time.