coming out as a recovering racist

Richard W. DeVaul
May 1, 2018 · 6 min read

In this post I want to do three things: First, I want to come out as a recovering racist and misogynist. Second, I want to put that in the context of my world growing up. Third, I want you to consider the ways in which you may have internalized the privileges and biases of your upbringing. Why is that important? Because I spent my entire life thinking of myself as a progressive, voted for our first black president, and until very recently didn’t reflect on just how much my world view was shaped by the society of my childhood, including its white supremacy and misogyny. And as a result, I was completely unprepared for our current societal and political realities. I thought other people were the problem, not realizing just how much it was me. It’s likely you have done the same thing.

The Maplewood swimming pool where I spent many a summer afternoon in the ‘70s

I was a kid in in Houston, Texas in the 70s and early 80s. My family lived in a middle-class white and Jewish neighborhood called Maplewood South, in a wholly unremarkable middle-class home with a detached garage, a back yard with a sandbox and a tire swing, and neighbors all around who also had kids about my age. I spent summers playing soccer in 100F+ heat with 98% relative humidity, exploring Brays Bayou, and playing with my friends. I remember spending summers and weekends at the local Jewish Community Center, taking swimming lesson, even learning Hebrew. I was surrounded by white kids with families from the midwest, Europe, and a few hispanic kids. And while I knew my family was supposed to be Episcopalian in some generic way, nobody told me I wasn’t also Jewish. It came as a huge disappointment at the age of seven or eight when I found out I wasn’t going to get my bar mitzvah like my neighbors Mark and Jay.

In retrospect, one of things that strikes me most about this was just how white my neighborhood was. At the time I didn’t even question it.

I remember being at my grandmother’s house as a kid, maybe five or six, and telling my mom or my grandmother that I didn’t like black people. This was in reaction to something that my grandmother’s black housekeeper Cigareta said to me — probably her calling me on not making my bed properly that morning. I don’t know how much I really meant my racist comment, since I mostly remember being angry at Cigareta. The adult I was with told me that wasn’t a very nice thing to say. As if making a racist remark was like running through the kitchen when my grandmother was cooking, or interrupting adults when they were talking. As if the problem was one of manners, not attitude or belief.

I went to Houston Independent School District (HISD) public schools in south central Houston, which meant that I spoke tejano slang on the playground and went to class with black kids. I had black teachers. But somehow, there were no black kids in my cub scout and boy scout troop. Somehow I wasn’t playing with hispanic kids after school. I didn’t even think about it.

In college I discovered progressive and radical politics. I started to figure out that I was queer and kinky. I made black friends, even dated a few non-white people. But even as I was reading the speeches of Dr. King and studying Bacon’s Rebellion and the Freedom Riders, I believed that a kind of inexorable hand of progress was pushing us all forward. I read Black Like Me and imagined that I might have been one of the activists of the 60s if only I’d lived in such a time, somehow missing the obvious significance of events like the Rodney King riots in 1992. Later, the election of Barack Obama only reinforced this distorted view of inevitable progress.

I’m even more embarrassed by that attitude than I am of my racist childhood. Even as Rodney King was being beaten, I continued to believe that somehow the U.S. was making progress. More importantly, I didn’t introspect on my own beliefs and attitudes. Of course, most people in the media and movies were white. Of course my elite education surrounded me with people who were mostly white, East Asian, and South Asian. Of course most of my colleagues are men.

The rise of virulent racism, antisemitism, and misogyny in our society was a horrible shock for me, but only because I’d been blind to the obvious signs for so long. I’m far more aware of these attitudes and biases in myself now that we live in an era of Nazis openly marching in the streets of Charlottesville. It’s a horrible price to pay for finally being awake, but I’m concerned that a lot of people like me — like the well-meaning “color-blind” progressive that I used to be — are still seeing this as a problem “out there” in society, not in themselves. That is not just wrong, it is dangerous.

We aren’t going to fix the huge challenges we face as a society if we assume that this is some kind of historical blip and that the problem is just Trump and Russian meddling. The problem is much deeper — the problem is us. And we aren’t going to stop being ethnocentric, because that is human nature. But we can be recovering ethnocentrists. We can recognize that the problems are in us, not just in the extreme manifestations we see out there.

So what do we do? The first step is realizing that we are biased, and not in some shallow way. Not in some way that a one-day racial sensitivity training will fix. We are biased in fundamental ways that we aren’t going to fix, but which we can become aware of as long as we are willing to do the hard work of continued self-reflection.

hmm… I’m feeling really uncomfortable about that guy behind me. Wait, is it because of how he is acting or the color of his skin?

Second, we can explore the ways in which those biases have become part of the systems we participate in, be it work or education or our personal relationships. These systematic biases perpetuate injustice and are what make it so easy for us to ignore the bias in ourselves.

Sure, the last three people we hired were men, but that’s because we didn’t have any qualified non-male applicants… OK, so where are we recruiting? And what happened the last time a woman interviewed here? Maybe she went and told her friends this isn’t a good place to work because of how she was treated.

And third, we should actively challenge our biases by spending time in places, systems, and structures in which the biases are different from our own. These can be informational places, such as media with a different perspective. These can be real places we find when we travel across the globe or to the other side of town. And most importantly, these can be changes we make to the systems and structures in our own lives to actively challenge our own biases. By consciously making a choice to live and work differently on a daily basis we can collectively bring about long-term societal change.

Racism, misogyny, and ethnocentrism aren’t problems to “solve” like an acute illness. They are chronic aspects of the human condition. We can be better people and make a more just society when we recognize this and are committed to the long-term solutions of continued personal introspection, thoughtful critique of systematic bias, and working to create new and better systems. I’m committed to working on this, and I hope you will join me.

And how do we make better systems? I’ve got some thoughts. Stay tuned.

Richard W. DeVaul

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Founder of @hypersolve, co-founder of Project Loon. Formerly leader of early-stage innovation activities at X, the Moonshot Factory.