I have a whole lot of racist bones in my body.

Joan Westenberg
Published in
12 min readJun 4, 2024

The declaration “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” has become a cliched defence for public figures accused of making racially insensitive or outright racist statements. As Slate writer Jamelle Bouie pointed out over a decade ago, a wide range of individuals have trotted out this phrase when confronted with their own prejudicial words or actions.

Take Rep. Paul Ryan, who claimed not to have a “racist bone” after his comments about “inner-city males” were criticised as a “thinly veiled racial attack.” Or Sen. Bob Dole, who used the same line when protesters challenged his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. Or anti-immigration activist Harold Ezell, architect of California’s Proposition 187 denying services to undocumented immigrants, who insisted he didn’t have a “racist bone” while facing hundreds of Latino demonstrators.

The list goes on: Shock jock Adam Carolla, responding to outrage over his use of anti-Asian slurs and stereotypes. TV personality Jesse James backpedalling after being photographed giving a Nazi salute. Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo apologised for tweeting that 70% of NBA teams could fold without anyone noticing “with the possible exception of an increase in street crime.”

In each case, the “not a racist bone” defence was used to deflect criticism and shut down the conversation. It implies that racism lies solely in conscious, active, individual animosity, not in the perpetuation of stereotypes or support for discriminatory policies. By this logic, as long as you don’t actively identify as someone who carries hatred for people of other races, you’re absolved of any harm done by your words and actions, no matter how racist they may be.

But racism isn’t just about personal intent or how you personally identify- it’s about real-world impact. You can express biased ideas or back oppressive policies without consciously despising anyone or admitting it to yourself. Denying your prejudice doesn’t erase the damage of portraying inner-city minorities as criminals, trying to block immigrant communities from public services, or suggesting that the mostly-black NBA is linked to “street crime.”

This defensive posture prevents reflection and accountability. It changes the subject from the offence’s substance to the accused’s wounded feelings. It shuts down hard but necessary conversations about the biases we’ve all internalised from a society steeped in structural racism.

We want to think that overt racism is a thing of the past, a relic of a less enlightened age that we’ve moved beyond. Racial slurs, segregated schools and neighbourhoods, job discrimination — that’s not us, we tell ourselves. We’re better than that now.

But the racism that still plagues society isn’t solely the loud and ugly kind — the kind that’s easy to condemn smugly — it’s frequently a quiet, subtle bias woven so deeply into the fabric of our culture that we barely even notice it. Our prejudice is not a series of isolated acts by a few bad apples, it’s a primarily unconscious pattern of assumptions, stereotypes and unspoken rules that guide our daily interactions, even (and perhaps especially) among those of us with the best intentions.

This is the argument of a growing number of social scientists, journalists, and cultural critics. Through groundbreaking research and compelling storytelling, they are shining a spotlight on the myriad ways that racial bias shapes our world — and showing why overcoming these biases is one of the significant challenges of our time.

Consider this study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT. They sent nearly 5,000 resumes in response to help-wanted ads, randomly alternating between stereotypically “White-sounding” names like Emily and Greg and “African-American sounding” names like Lakisha and Jamal. The resumes were identical in their education and experience. The only difference was the name.

The results were startling. Resumes with White-sounding names received 50% more callbacks than those with African-American names. Moreover, resumes with White names that indicated higher quality (with details such as an email address, no gaps in employment history, and extra skills and experience) received 30 percent more callbacks than those without these qualities. For African Americans, the boost from a higher-quality resume was much smaller, just 9 percent.

The takeaway was clear — when it comes to getting a job, even in our supposedly post-racial, colourblind world, Whiteness itself confers an enormous advantage. And this advantage grows even more significant when combined with other markers of success and achievement.

This points to an uncomfortable truth: racism, and especially anti-Black discrimination, remain potent forces in Western life. But these forces no longer announce themselves loudly through “Whites Only” signs. Blessed by the brazenly bigoted rhetoric of politicians and public figures like Donald Trump, racial bias operates in subtle, often unconscious ways, creating invisible barriers and self-fulfilling prophecies that limit opportunities for African Americans and other people of colour.

The Implicit Association Test, developed by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington, offers a revealing glimpse into the hidden workings of racial bias in our minds. The test measures unconscious associations by seeing how quickly individuals link positive or negative words with faces of different races. An analysis of hundreds of thousands of tests found that around 75% of Whites, Asians and Hispanics show an implicit preference for Whites over Blacks.

What makes these implicit biases so insidious is that they can influence behaviour even among those who consciously reject racism. In simulations, White subjects with implicit biases favouring Whites were more likely to view African American faces as angry, to categorise ambiguous behaviours by African Americans as hostile, and to suggest harsher punishments for African American transgressors. When interviewing candidates, they spent less time making eye contact with African Americans, sat further away from them, and showed other signs of discomfort and disconnection. The researchers concluded that these reactions, stemming from negative assumptions buried in the subconscious, could tilt the playing field against African Americans in interactions from job interviews to courtroom trials to routine traffic stops.

Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain, argues that the workings of implicit bias help explain many of the disparities we see in society. Why are African Americans far more likely to be pulled over and searched by police? Why do public schoolteachers more frequently label African American children as troublemakers? Why do real estate agents show African American homebuyers fewer and less desirable properties? The individuals making these judgments would likely deny and be unaware of racial bias. Yet their hidden brains may be reacting to racial triggers, shaping their perceptions and decisions without their conscious awareness.

If you want to understand how racial bias gets transmitted and reinforced over time, talk to historian Jennifer Eberhardt. Growing up African American in a White neighbourhood in Cleveland, Eberhardt was constantly aware of the colour line, “the invisible boundary between the White world and the Black one.”

In White stores, she noticed, clerks would hover nervously nearby or studiously avoid making eye contact — one of many subtle cues marking her as an outsider and a threat. On the playground, White parents would call out to their children in hushed, urgent tones when she approached, instructing them to be careful or pulling them away to “safer” parts of the schoolyard. Walking home at night, she would cross to the other side of the street when she saw a White passerby, knowing her mere presence could provoke fear and uneasiness.

As she grew older, Eberhardt realised that these subtle yet persistent messages — that Blackness was something to be wary of, to avoid, to guard against — were not merely an issue in her neighbourhood or city. They were part of a much larger story that stretched centuries and spanned the entire Western world. It is a story about who belongs and who doesn’t, about which lives are valued and which are seen as expendable — a story, in short, about power.

The narrative of Black inferiority and White supremacy has been part of Western culture since the days of slavery and colonialism. It was used to justify the brutal exploitation of African labour, the theft of Indigenous lands, and the global dominance of White imperial powers. Over time, this narrative was woven into the very fabric of society through pseudo-scientific racism, discriminatory laws and policies, and cultural stereotypes and representations.

Today, even as overt displays of racism have become unacceptable in polite society, this long history continues to shape perceptions and prejudices on an unconscious level. The image of the dangerous Black man, the overweight Black welfare mom, the despairing Black ghetto — these and other stereotypes still linger in our collective cultural subconscious, subtly influencing how we see the world and each other. They’re in every cop show. Every crime thriller. It’s pervasive.

The visceral conservative attacks against critical race theory in recent years are indicative of an underlying awareness among many conservatives of the ways that racism continues to manifest in modern American society. Critical race theory examines how race and racism are embedded in the social, legal, and political systems and institutions of the United States in ways that perpetuate racial inequity, even in the absence of overt bigotry or de jure segregation.

By arguing that racism is not simply a matter of individual prejudice but is structurally entrenched, critical race theory challenges conservative narratives that present racism as essentially a thing of the past that has been overcome through civil rights legislation and cultural progress. The conservative insistence that critical race theory is divisive, un-American, and itself a form of racism is a defensive reaction against a challenge to a convenient worldview that absolves them of responsibility or work.

Many conservatives are deeply invested, psychologically and ideologically, in a vision of America as a fundamentally just and egalitarian society where racism is no longer a problem. Acknowledging the ongoing realities of systemic racism threatens this vision and raises uncomfortable questions about the need for further social change. The backlash against critical race theory allows conservatives to avoid grappling with these issues by dismissing or demonising the entire intellectual framework.

At the same time, the specificity and intensity of conservative attacks on critical race theory betray a particular awareness of the legitimacy of some of its core insights. The reactionary fervour with which conservatives have mobilised against the supposed infiltration of critical race theory into schools, corporations, and government institutions suggests a recognition that these ideas have the potential to alter public consciousness around race in ways they find threatening.

In this sense, the conservative backlash against critical race theory is not simply a result of ignorance or misunderstanding — even if researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities have found that an overwhelming majority of U.S. residents — seven out of 10 — don’t understand what critical race theory is.

The calculated assault on the concepts and framework of the research is a calculated effort to quash a framework that hits too close to home in its analysis of modern racial inequities. By caricaturing critical race theory as a divisive and radical ideology, conservatives aim to delegitimise it in the public mind before it can gain a wider hearing.

So far, this is all abstract. But I have a personal angle to this.

I am, in fact, quite fucking racist.

That shouldn’t be a controversial statement — simply because if we were honest with ourselves, most white people living in Western countries are pretty fucking racist. Whether we want to be or not. Whether we think we are or not. It’s a part of us. It’s a part of our legacies, histories, advantages, choices and cycles.

Growing up in a predominantly white country, I didn’t think much about race or consider myself prejudiced in any way. My parents taught me everyone should be treated equally, and I had friends and classmates of different ethnicities. Racism was something I associated with the past — slavery, genocide perpetrated by the ubiquitous somebody else, the global Western civil rights movements — or with the ignorant fringes of society. It wasn’t something I thought I needed to grapple with personally.

But as I’ve grown older and hopefully a little wiser, I’ve started to reexamine many of my assumptions around race and bias. I’ve come to see that prejudice isn’t always a matter of conscious bigotry or intentional discrimination. It takes the form of subconscious stereotypes, unspoken assumptions, and a lack of awareness of the experiences of others. It takes the form of silence. And, like it or not, these subtle biases have been part of my programming. It’s a collective racism, and I am a part of that collective, both as an individual and as a cog in the wheels.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to acknowledge, the idea that I harbour hidden prejudices and that I’ve benefited from the structural advantages of Whiteness. When you think of yourself as an open-minded, progressive person, the last thing you want to admit is that racism plays a role in your thinking and behaviour. A knee-jerk defensiveness kicks in, an urge to insist on your own unimpeachable wokeness.

But if I’m being frank with myself, there are plenty of examples where racial bias has crept into my perceptions and interactions. When a coworker of colour has voiced frustrations about their treatment in the office, my first instinct has sometimes been to search for other explanations besides racism. I’ve made countless small choices — where to live, where I instinctively want to send my kid to school, which professionals to hire — that have reflected subconscious preferences for “people like me.”

None of my subconscious prejudices make me a card-carrying KKK member.

But they don’t have to. That’s not the bar of racism we’re trying to beat. Or at least, it fucking shouldn’t be.

They do suggest that I’ve absorbed and internalised certain prejudices and preconceptions from the culture I was raised in, a culture that still centres on Whiteness as the norm and portrays people of colour through negative stereotypes. Even if I consciously reject these stereotypes, they still lurk in my blind spots, shaping my split-second reactions and unthinking behaviours. That’s just a fact. It’s the reality of my life. Unlike Paul Ryan, I have, in fact, more than a few racist bones in my body.

As I’ve tried to be more mindful of these biases, I’ve noticed how much they pop up in the media and discourse I consume. I’ll read news stories that depict inner-city neighbourhoods exclusively as crime-ridden and dysfunctional. I’ll hear white acquaintances make casual generalisations about “Asian values” or “black culture.” Sometimes, I’ll nod along or stay silent rather than make things awkward by challenging these notions. It’s a constant drip of messaging reinforcing the sense of Whiteness as default and otherness as aberrant.

What do I do with this understanding of my own racial biases?

Wallow in white guilt and self-flagellation?

Try to achieve a state of perfect, immaculate anti-racism?

I don’t think any of those approaches are particularly constructive.

And, of course, they have the side effect of making the racism that others experience all about me and my precious feelings.

The first step for me has been to sit with the discomfort of acknowledging my biases and cultivate a sense of humility on these issues. To resist the urge to leap to defensiveness or denial when confronted with my own prejudices or racial blind spots. To listen more than I speak in conversations about race and oppression. Accept that I’ll likely never be free of bias but that I am responsible for examining and challenging it.

So far, I have, in all likelihood, failed.

But it’s a work in progress.

And I’ve tried to approach this work of dismantling bias not as an abstract intellectual exercise or a public competition to prove my enlightenment but as an ongoing practice grounded in empathy and relationships. I believe real change happens not through opportunistic self-promotion or political point-scoring but through the complicated, messy, face-to-face work of seeing each other’s full humanity — and striving to align our thoughts and actions with that truth.

It’s a lifelong journey, one I’ll admittedly never complete. The biases ingrained by a racist society run deep, and untangling them requires work that very often feels “too hard” — because as a white person, it’s work that can always feel comfortably optional, if we want it to.

I will likely never eradicate prejudice from my mind, but I can strive to bring it into the light of consciousness, interrupt its influence over my behaviour, and join with others in building a world that bends toward justice.

It’s the bare minimum.

Dismantling that racism demands more than just declaring our bones prejudice-free.

It requires thoroughly examining our assumptions, listening to the communities impacted by racism, and taking responsibility for the consequences of our words and deeds, even when they stem from ignorance rather than malice. It means engaging in uncomfortable self-reflection and committing to ongoing anti-racist action.

Anyone can claim to have no racist bones. But it takes something more to confront the racism threaded through our social fabric — including in our minds — and to do the lifelong work of rooting it out. Hiding behind a hackneyed cliche is the easy way out; grappling honestly with racism in all its forms is the only path to real change.

None of this will happen quickly or automatically — for me personally or for society as a whole.

The racial biases embedded in our minds and our culture are the product of centuries of history; a few diversity seminars or an inspirational speech will not undo them. It will take sustained work and soul-searching on all of our parts.

But if we’re willing to start from a place of humility, to acknowledge the depths of racism within and around us, we can begin the long, complex, crucial change process. We can start telling a new story about who we are and want to be.

The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice. But it doesn’t bend on its own. It takes all of us confronting our blindness and biases and getting our shit together.

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