I have racial biases.
I have racist thoughts.
This isn’t the first time I’ve spoken these words, but it’s likely the first time that you have heard me say them. I first put voice to these truths in about 2015. To start, I only spoke these words with close friends and family, mostly in a private place where there was no risk of other people picking up on the conversation. Soon I started to voice these words more often and in conversations with people who I didn’t necessarily know very well. I started to speak about it with colleagues who are in service to humanity as well. First, it was mostly white people who had similar life circumstances who to I opened up. Gradually, as I educated myself more, listened more and started to understand more, I grew more confidence to speak to my Black and Native American friends and colleagues about my racial biases.
This is a journey that has been central to my life and my service for at least six years now, but really has been central through my whole life (as I’ll elucidate later). However, these were not words that I was ready to share publicly. Not because I didn’t want to though. I’ve wanted to so deeply. But I was afraid. I was afraid for numerous reasons.
From the start I felt paralyzed. I didn’t have the skills. I didn’t have the support network. There was so much polarization in our society. I didn’t know what I could really do. At first, I didn’t feel like I could share this with my primarily white circle of friends and my largely white online following. I was concerned that people would understand since I never, to my recollection, had heard any of them say that they had racial biases. I had certainly had conversations and heard people talking where they acknowledged that they were complicit in racist systems (society, government, business, etc.) and maybe even that they benefited from these racist systems. However, nobody ever shared with me that they had racist biases, tendencies or thoughts.
The only time the conversation arose with my friends and colleagues was when I brought it up. But I was pleasantly surprised that the close friends I spoke to understood my viewpoint and even generally agreed they had these racist biases and tendencies as well. That, in part, is what built the confidence to address this publicly. I started to become confident that I – with my racial biases – was not the exception among white people, but a representation of a large portion, likely a large majority of white Americans.
Even though I started to see that I was not the exception, but the norm in my racial biases, as a public figure, I felt it could be dangerous to publicly share about my racial biases. We live in a time when many people take snippets of what a person says and ignore the rest of the content, to alter context. To say the words “I have racial biases”, leaves room for misinterpretation (ironically most likely by white people who don’t understand their own racist tendencies) and leaves room for it to be used against me or for me to be vilified or hated.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that many people only read a small portion of something and then fill in the rest with their own notions. We live in a polarized time when people have ideas behind words and those ideas are often already solidified in their mind. When I speak on a polarized issue, often people expand upon what I say, beyond what I have spoken or written, and then combine thousands of their own words and images in their head with me. Rarely are these assumptions accurate whether they paint me in a better or worse light than who I truly am.
Another factor as to why I was not ready to address this publicly is because I was new to understanding my racist tendencies. At first, I was just figuring it out and not sure how to talk about it. As I’ll share more on later, I spent the first 23 years of my life in a region with very, very few Black people. My communication with Black people was limited and especially my communication on complex topics. I was really unsure of what would be the best way to approach this without possibly being a stimulus for pain, sadness, anger or any undesired feelings for people of color. My desire to speak openly was to create healing – for myself and for others. The last thing I wanted to do was to be a burden.
There’s another reason that I didn’t share this when I first realized it and that is insecurity. It is not a comfortable discovery to realize that you have been influenced by racist systems and that they have penetrated deep into your mind and soul. For most people I would imagine it is incredibly uncomfortable to come to terms with being racist or having racist tendencies and thoughts.
I was worried that if I shared that I have racial biases, some Black people would be uncomfortable around me. I was already uncomfortable enough having such limited experience being with Black people. The last thing I wanted to do was create more discomfort. The last thing I wanted to do was give Black folks a reason to not like me. I wanted to be loved! I wanted connection. I wanted healing. I didn’t want separation.
I’m kind of known for being a “good” guy. Having racial biases doesn’t tend to go hand-in-hand with that image. It is safe to say that image plays a role as to whether I want to cover up the rusty sides of myself or to be truthful about them. My goal is to be truthful about all the sides of myself. In part, because I am seeking to live in truth and in part to help others in similar positions do the same. This takes time. It takes deep self-reflection and critical thinking to understand oneself.
It is difficult waters to tread, to publicly acknowledge that I have racial biases. That may mean something very different from one person to another. So, I am going to expand upon exactly what I mean by this.
I will go ahead and say it again, I have racial biases. I would even consider it to be true to say that I am racist. Now does that mean I am a member of a racist organization? No. Does it mean that I have ever done anything to intentionally harm a Black person or person of another ethnicity? No, not to my recollection. Does it mean that I have any intentions of being violent towards a Black person or person of color? No. Does it mean that I want any of them to have less than me or that I want any form of segregation? No.
So, at this point some (mostly white people) would say, “Okay, well then what are you talking about? You’re not racist. You don’t have racial biases.”
Here’s the thing about the word “racist”. I think there is a whole spectrum to racism.
Racism in My Childhood
In my upbringing, we were mostly taught about racism in the extreme. We learned about slavery and were taught that it ended a long time ago. We learned about segregation. Instances such as children having to go to different schools. When Black people were not allowed to drink out of the same water fountains or not being allowed to sit in the front of the bus.
We learned about lynching, the bombing of churches, police officers forcing attack dogs upon innocent people and blasting them with fire hoses that shredded their skin. We learned that the police and every day white people did this simply because Black folk were walking for their own basic human rights and dignity.
We learned about this very outward form of racism. This very obvious racism.
Nearly all of what we were taught about racism was extreme. (Perhaps we learned about less extreme racism as well, but it wasn’t what stuck out or what we remembered as racist.)
So to be called racist, or to acknowledge racism within ourselves, is to associate with the extremes of spitting on a young Black girl walking to a recently desegregated school, lynching a Black man for saying hello to a white woman or being a KKK member. But the thing is, racism, as with most things, is on a spectrum, from very minor racism, to very extreme and outward racism. I am on that spectrum of racism and I believe that even very minor racial biases are worth understanding and overcoming.
I didn’t decide to be racist. I grew up in a racist society. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin in the small town of Ashland on Lake Superior. The sign leading into town read “Population 8,620” and it was the largest city within about an hour’s drive. I grew up like millions of other Americans, in a mostly white society designed for a mostly white population. I remember only a few Black families living in Ashland when I was a child and that was the case for most every city nearby. My school was about 20% Anishinaabe people and beyond that it was white, with minimal other culture or ethnicity. It was a place where I had close to no exposure to Black people or to Black culture.
What exposure I did have was the exposure that came through mainstream media.
Most of my peers, and likely most of my town, (which I think is an accurate representation for thousands of other cities and towns across the nation) didn’t consciously realize it, but mainstream media primarily displayed Black people in a negative manner.
If I were to watch the show Cops, which I did sometimes, most of the people being arrested were Black and they were “criminals”. Seeing this time after time, I associated Black people with criminals.
In movies, the Black people were generally “bad guys”. The heroes were generally white people. Thus, I would subconsciously associate “bad guys” with Black people and heroes with white people.
On the news, they showed young Black men and boys being arrested. The news presenters spoke of the violent things these men and boys were accused of doing and the drugs they were selling. There wasn’t much violence or drugs in my young life, so it stuck with me seeing these Black boys in handcuffs. I created an association of Black men and boys with danger and violence. I subconsciously created an association with Black men and drug dealing. The associations were also attached to details of their identity. Some of these boys and men were wearing pants that sagged down low on their butt. They had different clothes, jewelry and tattoos that none of my peers wore. When I saw any Black boy or man with these similar identities, I was likely to associate them with violence, drugs and criminality.
Most Black people I saw in the news were not portrayed as highly intelligent, hard working or talented. Of course, some were and I loved and respected Martin Luther King Jr. and a small number of other Black heroes and sports players. I’m thankful that some people managed to get through to me in this manner. I saw many more white men portrayed as highly intelligent, hard working and talented. So this created a subconscious notion that, in general, people of color were less intelligent, didn’t work as hard and were not as talented as white people. Again, the subconscious is the key here. It was deep inside of me, not on the surface and I didn’t even know this was happening.
The text books I read were primarily written by and for white people. Black people were left out of the vast majority of it. Fellow Black children were left out of representation in everyday life for me. There were just so few times when I saw Black people as students, teachers, successful professionals or just every day, average, “normal” people.
Neither of my parents has ever been outwardly racist to my recollection. They are both quite accepting people who believe that all people are equal and all people deserve the same basic human rights. They definitely did not raise me to be racist and I don’t recall them ever saying a single negative thing about any person of a different ethnicity. I’m sure they had some racial biases, but I think they both had successfully avoided indoctrination by the racist society they grew up in. I think it is accurate to say that they were likely a positive influence on me in this regard. But they did raise me in a racist society and they couldn’t hide me from the dominant narratives of our time.
Living in a white majority state, there wasn’t even that much conversation about race in general. I was sheltered from it. The only time I remember my grandparents on my dad’s side talking about Black people was when they said to lock the doors because Black people were walking down the street nearby. I was young and my mind easily influenced. That created a small but meaningful association with Black skin and danger, because I had trust in my family.
In summary, I heard very few positive things about Black people for the first couple decades of my life. Of course, there was some, but the vast majority of the exposure I had to Black people was through mainstream media and the vast majority of depictions of Black people in the mainstream media were negative. What this did is it created an association with Black people in a negative manner in my brain. This is called implicit bias and this was deeply programmed and ingrained into me from a very young age. (Implicit bias is the beliefs that sit in the back of your brain and inform your actions without your explicit knowledge.)
In my late twenties and early thirties, I started to see clearly that the accumulation of experiences from my first two decades had created a baseline of operation in my brain that was creating my present reality. I’m sure I had thought about it to some degree before, but now it was really coming clear that my brain had been wired or programmed with racial biases.
At about the age of 32, I accepted the reality that a Black person generally started lower in my mind than a white person did. I observed instances where this played out in simple daily interactions with people I didn’t know, as well as where it played out with people I did know and have a relationship with. I saw it in friendships and with colleagues. I saw that this could play out under a wide range of circumstances. I found that when I was viewing a Black person’s skill set to accomplish a project, I was more likely to assume that they did not have the skills or qualifications while I was more likely to assume that a white person did have the qualifications. Basically, a Black person was more likely to have to prove they were qualified for my brain to believe it and a white person was more likely to start off as qualified in my brain without having proven their qualification.
I saw this play out in some of the simplest ways. When I was living in Orlando, a woman called me to pick up a chicken coop I was giving away. She said she would send someone to get it. When that someone was a Black man, I assumed that he was working for her because the woman sounded like a white woman. When he said that is his wife I was speaking to on the phone, I instantly saw my racial bias playing out. It wasn’t just a mistake or an assumption – it was an assumption based on racial bias programming in my brain. I didn’t have any negative thoughts about him, in fact, I really enjoyed him and wanted to stay in touch, but he, in fact, did start lower in my mind.
Numerous times I found myself surprised that somebody is Black when I had only heard their voice or read their words. For a long time, I assumed Tracy Chapman was a white man. Why, most singers who also played guitar that I was exposed to were white men. My default for this type of musician is white men.
In approximately 2017, I read the quote, “Activism is my rent for living on this planet”, which was attributed to Alice Walker. I loved the quote and I even posted it on social media. I never looked into Alice Walker. In 2020, I read A Black Women’s History of the United States. I saw the name Alice Walker and was confused why they would be talking about a white woman in the back and then I realized Alice Walker is Black. Why did I assume that Alice was white when I first read the quote? Because most female activists that I knew of were white. My default was white. I saw white people as being able to do most things and I saw Black in very limited positions.
These are just a few examples. And my racial biases also exist on a spectrum. Generally, when I know someone well already or when someone is highly regarded by society or considered an expert in their field, then my racial biases don’t weigh in as strong. These racist tendencies can come out in many different ways. Generally they are just thoughts. Sometimes they come out in words and I catch myself. I am sure that many times they have come out in my words or in my actions and I have been fully oblivious to them.
When I would imagine a leader, an activist, a teacher, a business person, just about anybody… my default was a white person.
I can imagine a white person doing most anything (with some exceptions of my stereotypes of what only Black people do). But I would imagine Black people in limited roles. This means that in my mind I assumed that Black people aren’t generally able to do something. This is an assumption of inferiority. Now, it hurts to say this, but that very much falls into the definition of white superiority and Black inferiority. A white person was more likely to start off at a higher level in my mind than a Black person. The simple fact that I would find myself surprised by the intelligence of a Black woman says a lot about where my subconscious baseline was.
This is where I will say that I have sexist biases as well. A similar scenario with how men and women are portrayed in different roles in the media and society and my experience in life has created deeply ingrained sexist biases within me. Generally, for most of my life, I have been more likely to think of men as able to accomplish many tasks, as leaders and as qualified for different roles, while I have been likely to doubt a woman’s capabilities. This means I have both sexist and racist biases towards Black women and women of color.
It hurt to realize all of this. But did I blame myself? No. I was simply a product of my upbringing. Did I feel guilty? No. I hadn’t consciously chosen any of these thoughts. Did I think I was a bad person? No. I generally treated people with respect and dignity. Did it hurt to realize all of this? Yes. I felt shame for the way that I thought. Now that I knew that I had some white superiority and Black inferiority programming was I responsible for everything that racist white people had done? Was I responsible for the slavery and segregation? Did I need to make up for it? No. But did I see it as my responsibility to take control of my own mind and my own actions? Absolutely, for my own sake and because I care about my fellow humans.
I know that these thoughts that float across my brain are not the truth. I’m 100% certain that Black people are not inferior to white people in any manner, and that white people are not superior to Black people in any manner. But that is my logical and rational side as well as likely my heart. Unfortunately, what runs my brain to a large degree is decades of deep programming. It is my responsibility to reprogram my brain.
There are massive systemic problems in our society, government and corporate environments that oppress the Black population. Black people are disproportionately prevented from filling positions of leadership, power and representation. This is where the void of Black representation in my brain stems from. Rather than allowing the belief that Black people are not in those positions because they don’t work as hard or are not as intelligent, it is my responsibility to educate myself on the truth of why they are not in those positions.
It starts at youth with the School to Prison Pipeline. One in three Black men don’t go to prison because they are criminals. One in three Black men go to prison because there is a school-to-prison pipeline that is designed to put them in prison. The discrimination and disadvantages continue through a racist police force, racist judicial systems and laws, a racist prison-industrial complex and so much more.
The system prevents people of color and women from being accepted into universities and hired and promoted for roles they deserve as much as the white man who is hired or promoted instead.
For me, the first step was education. I won’t dive too deeply into this here, but instead I recommend watching 13th by Ava DuVernay and reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Olou and How to Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.
But education is only the beginning. Yes, education has very much helped me to rewire my programming. It has helped me to overcome some of my racial biases. Simply by seeing the truth behind why our society is the way it is, I have managed to substantially break down these biases through logic and rationale.
But, I have found something far more powerful than education and that is the reprogramming of my mind through listening and through in-person experience.
Sometime around 2016, I had come to the understanding that although the environmental movement appeared to be led by and appeared to have been created by white people, it indeed was not. Black people and people of many cultures and ethnicities made the environmental movement what it is today. But I really struggled to find the Black environmental leaders to follow and learn from. I put in some effort, but found myself deflated and didn’t have much success. Then in 2020, I tried again. This time everything was different.
I watched documentaries made by Black producers and directors. I read books written by Black authors. I heard the story through their voice and through their experience. This was one way that I could listen a lot. There was still some content that I read and watched written by white people – such as White Fragility – but for the most part, it was clear that hearing from Black voices directly was what was needed.
Besides educational content, I also watched movies that were focused on life. I created new mental associations with Black people by seeing them BE many things – everyday people, students, peers, partners, professionals and many other roles. I focused on watching and reading content that showed Black women in positions of leadership and success. I watched as my biases were rewritten.
I found many Black colleagues on social media. I followed many and was intentional about consistently checking in on their work and their lives. Some of them consistently became a part of my life, even though I’d never met them. I learned from them, related to them (and disagreed with them), cried reading their writing and felt connections. At first, I found a few Black colleagues here and there and the more that I changed who I was following, the more that I saw. It didn’t take too long before there were far more people I wanted to follow than I possibly could. My news feed had transformed and each visit to my feed was another bit of deprogramming of old patterns and reprogramming with new ones, whether I knew it or not.
Through listening, I learned that one of the things that I could do that would be most beneficial to Black folk and humanity would be to share my platform with folks of color. I had been producing videos for a handful of years featuring activists, organizations, initiatives and every day people working for sustainability, equity and justice. However, it was a majority of white people that I featured and there was very little Black representation. I set out to change that and put a large amount of my resources into highlighting Black gardeners, foragers, activists and outstanding human beings. By doing this, I also reprogrammed my own mind. Black people are gardeners. Black people are foragers. Black people are activists. Black people are outstanding human beings! I started to feel that in my heart and truly believe it in my mind.
I met and spent time with many of the folks that I was featuring on my channel and some of them became colleagues and friends with whom I have maintained relationships.
By spending time around empowered, successful Black people, I am repainting the pictures of Black people in my brain. By filling my social media feed with Black people, I am overriding the images that the mainstream media of my youth created and I am imprinting new truthful ones. I have been making an effort to see Black people in ways that foster respect, admiration, relation and curiosity inside of me. I am working to simply see them for the full and whole human beings that they are. The complex and multi-faceted human beings they are. To see them as mothers and fathers, siblings and cousins, aunties and friends, leaders and organizers, teachers and students, activists and everyday citizens and dozens of these positions at once.
That really, really hurt to put into words. I feel super vulnerable to put this into words, but for much of my life I have not thought of Black people as whole and complete human beings, not compared to how I think of white people. This is deeply painful and this is at the deepest depth of what I want to overcome.
I made an intentional move to spend more time with Black people. I volunteered at Black-led gardens. I went to Black-led events. I invited Black people to events that I facilitated or took part in and provided scholarships so they could more easily attend. It wasn’t easy at first, but little by little my friend group and colleagues changed. My friend group went from primarily white, to a minority white within a few years’ time.
Now, this is where I feel a bit of a need to share a little more about my intentions behind all of this. If I had to summarize my intentions into three words, they would be healing, liberation and connection. Healing, liberation and connection for myself. Healing, liberation and connection for the Black community. Healing, liberation and connection for white people. Healing, liberation and connection for all of humanity.
These friendships have been some of the most healing relationships and elements of my entire life. We have learned together. We have grown together. We have felt joy together. We have had fun together. We’ve also experienced sorrow at times, too. Each of these friendships has been deep and real through sharing common purposes and desires in life. Together we are deepening our connections to Earth and the plants and animals we share this Earth with. We are liberating ourselves. We are practicing Compassionate Communication and living in gratitude. We are healing our traumas through deeply vulnerable conversations. We’ve shared things with each other that we’ve never told anyone else. We are liberating ourselves from our own programming. We are having deeply personal discussions around race and our experiences as the race that we are and the experiences we’ve had in life.
If the healing was solely for myself, then my actions would be a continuation of exploitation and extraction. And I’ll be real honest with you… I desperately wanted to heal. I desperately wanted liberation. I desperately wanted connection. I was in pain living in separation from so much of humanity. I was suffering under the dominator society that oppresses and exploits so many. I was feeling so disconnected with the Black community. Through the actions I shared, I was absolutely trying to meet my own basic human needs for belonging, acceptance, connection, harmony, inclusion, equality, equity, mutuality, shared reality, freedom, peace, the well-being of others and so much more. As I have met my own basic human needs through relationships with Black people, this is holistically and inseparably tied to a desire for these basic human needs to be met for all people, especially for peope of color who have been stripped of these human rights the most by an oppressive American society.
I believe that racism can only exist with separation. Racism can only exist with a lack of understanding and shared reality. The solution to overcoming racial biases is connection. The medicine is understanding one another and having some shared realities.
I believe racism can only exist when there is internal conflict such as fear, instability and insecurity. The medicine is peace within, self-realization and knowledge, self-love and acceptance. The cure for me to overcoming my racial biases, and thus creating healing in my relationships in humanity, has been connection. That’s what it all comes down to for me.
I first started to write this in Fall of 2020. I put hours into writing this and it has sat as a word document on my computer for the last three years. Consistently I have thought of this and how much I wanted to finish it…how much I wanted to share this with anyone who’d like to read it. But so much else occupied my time.
Upon finally sitting down to finish, I started by rereading what I had written and I was truly amazed. I was amazed how what had been written in the present was no longer my reality. What had been written in the present could now be changed to the past tense. The programming of my childhood was no longer my go-to. Sure, it is still there. I still have racial biases and tendencies, but rather than them being the first thought or the norm, they are the rare exception.
In early 2022, I spent two months in Los Angeles and this winter I spent five months in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I assisted in building up the Deuces Food Forest and spent a lot of time in the Black community there. When I left in May, I realized that some real transformation had taken place. Where in the past I would often have had judgmental thoughts about Black folks – negative stereotypes, disapproval or discomfort, anxiety, despair or feeling disheartened or guarded – I felt just one overwhelming feeling. Love.
I felt such a strong love inside of me for the Black humanity. I felt such a strong love inside of me for my Black colleagues and friends. I felt such a strong level of love that it was healing me in that very moment!
This is what I intend to continue to nurture, LOVE. Loving thoughts. Loving communication. Loving actions. Loving relationships. LOVE.
I am happy with where I’ve come and I share this so that white individuals who have been similarly indoctrinated can use my example to help heal themselves. I share this for Black individuals who are working to heal themselves and liberate themselves from their own biases. I share this to put my intentions and hopes out into the world. I share this because it’s how I know how to create change, by being the change I wish to see and sharing my example.
However, this is not the destination. I still hold racial biases and tendencies within me. I still hold many biases within me against people who are different than me. I have biases towards gay, queer and trans folk, which means I still have so much work to do to overcoming my bias towards Black, LGBTQ+ women and men and gender non-conforming Black folk. I’m certain that there are more biases inside of me that have not surfaced yet and that there are even some that I am not aware of at all. This is a lifetime of work and I am unlikely to have finished the work even then. The listening and learning will continue. I have found new teachers who I will follow for many years as I continue on this path.
There is so much more that I would like to share and that I will share in the decades ahead.