Are You Race-centrist?: 6 Minute Read
Hi, my name is Derek, and I’m a race-centrist.
"What is a race-centrist?” you might wonder. Race-centrists spend 90%+ of their time with people of their own race. Consequently, they see things exclusively from this perspective. (1) While they ARE NOT racists who believe their race is superior, their narrow perspective can lead to conclusions that are not necessarily true, preventing themselves as well as others from living happier, healthier, and better lives.
Here’s an example.
In the summer of 2013 I lived across the street from a house where black males sat out front every day. They talked and smoked cigarettes and drank beer.
A few of them worked every day. A few seemed to work hardly at all.
At first, my race-centrism prompted me to associate the color of these men’s skin with lounging around in groups and not working.
But then, one day, I realized something. Many white and black people enjoy a drink after work. The difference was that most days, after work, I was lonely. Every day, they had friends.
Soon after I learned loneliness was a critical health problem for Americans. In fact, it’s more likely to cause premature death than heavy drinking or obesity. (2)
I also learned that of all Americans, loneliness affects white males the most. This suddenly made sense. My white male friends and I often complained of “the rat race” and not having time to pursue our passions. Hanging out, even once every few weeks, seemed to take a congressional hearing to clear our schedules and responsibilities.
Meanwhile, loneliness affects black males dramatically less. Turns out, my black neighbors were getting things right that I was getting wrong. Even as I judged them, science showed that my unwillingness to join them was literally killing me.
I now believe that overcoming race-centrism can help each of us better understand society’s problems—our own as well as others’—and live happier, healthier, and better lives. But the first step to overcoming race-centrism is admitting it. It takes a loving community, standing up, and saying, “Hi, my name is Derek, and I’m a race-centrist.”
Unfortunately, there are obstacles to this. Here are a few:
1) Social Acceptance.
Overcoming race-centrism can often mean giving up some level of social acceptance.
In my experience, questioning my race-centrism has prompted sideways glances from those who are invited by my personal reflections to evaluate the possibility of their race-centrist behavior.
In the past, I held my social acceptance tight by assembling evidence to prove I'm not a race-centrist.
I pointed to Exhibit A, my black friend. Or Exhibit B, mentioning that the store attendant I found so wonderful that day was a “black employee” rather than just an “employee.” Or Exhibit C, attending mixed race conferences and singing kumbaya. These are nice things, of course, in the same way it's nice for a doctor to bandage his patient's blister while the patient has a heart attack.
I have found that questioning race-centrist behaviors, whether mine or those of others, can create discomfort and risks losing their acceptance.
Overcoming race-centrism can also mean giving up some level of success.
It might mean choosing a less exclusive neighborhood or a less prestigious school to attend or have my children attend.
A race-centrist would never say, "I only want to live in a neighborhood with white people." They could say that they are looking for housing "in a neighborhood with great schools, nice amenities, and a solid return on real estate" and listeners might conclude the same thing. Sociologists have learned that most Americans care about interacting with other races and equality. The problem is they value economic opportunities more. (3)
Addressing race-centrism at this level requires more than just a personal decision because larger forces are at play.
Recent work has shown how segregation has been perpetuated by government at the local, state, and even federal levels through housing loans and zoning laws with property values as a primary motive. (4) I experienced the challenges of this myself when I explored buying a home in a mostly African American part of town. A banker told me I would have to put down a higher down payment percentage because the loan would be seen as a higher risk.
Similarly, politicians would never say that they “favor whites over blacks.” Instead, they might say that they are "hard on crime." Both Democrats and Republicans have used this trick to trigger voters’ race-centric tendencies, one-upping each other over the decades to compete for votes.
In order to overcome race-centrism, I have to be willing to give up the success it can bring, too.
3) Moral Justification.
Lastly, overcoming race-centrism can mean inviting accusations of my morals and character.
On the one hand, admitting race-centrism seems obvious. To say that I’m not implies I can see things clearly from the point of view of those who are different from me. I can't even see things clearly from my father’s perspective all the time. How can I insist that I understand the point of view of those I hardly spend time with?
And yet, we live in a society that cares more about following a list of rules and procedures to demonstrate we are “color blind” than we do ensuring that all colors are treated equally. In fact, injustices like mass incarceration are perpetuated by seemingly “color blind” procedures. (5)
My curiosity about my race-centrism pushed me to admit that I am a permanent, recovering, race-centrist. Much to my surprise, I found that admitting my race-centrism, like admitting to being an alcoholic, is the first step to change.
I began to eat, live, and worship with those who are different from me. I moved from my mostly white community to one that was more racially diverse. I began attending an A.M.E. Church around the corner on Sunday mornings to gain a different perspective instead of driving across town.
In the process of making these changes, I learned how tackling race-centrism can address problems we all care about, like affordable housing, purpose in our vocations, stress and loneliness. And, having experienced these benefits, I firmly believe it’s a happier, healthier, and better way to live.
Working to overcome my race-centrism has caused me to lose some social acceptance, success, and moral justification. But I’ve realized that previously ignoring it meant two things that I couldn’t see before I started to address it.
First, I no longer believe that I can say I care about justice and quality of life for others or myself while I ignore race-centrism. Overlooking justice is a violation of my moral compass and my faith, which commands me to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Second, I can now see how choosing social acceptance, success, and moral justification over equality made me a slave to those things. Not only did this realization negate their value to begin with, but violated my right as an American living in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
I have a painfully true announcement: I’m a race-centrist. I'll probably be one until the day I die. But I've also declared war on it, and in turn, racism. I hope, on the day I die, to have as little of it in my heart as possible.
Today the only question I ask myself is, "Why did I deny that I'm a race-centrist for so long?"
(1) The term was coined by Andreas Wimmer in a research article published in the August 2015 edition of Ethnic and Racial Studies.
(2) Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, pg 55
(3) Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America does a brilliant job of covering this issue in great detail.
(4) The Color of Law is a must read for those interested in these issues.
* The image at the top of this post, taken from Mapping Inequality, shows how neighborhoods were categorized for their creditworthiness during FDR's New Deal era. The practice of "red-lining" non-white neighborhoods worsened segregated living and made it impossible for many African-Americans to become homeowners. Find out more here.