I just took an internalized bias test through my workplace for the third year in a row. The results? I show a “strong preference” for white people over black. Just as I have on each previous exam.
As a child, visiting my grandparents in Mississippi provided some of my best memories. Making homemade ice cream on the back steps, picking blackberries, swimming in the creek. But life on the dairy farm wasn’t all fun and games. Sometimes, the news reported sightings of bears in the area or we’d be warned to keep an eye out for black panthers. No one in the family had ever seen one, but they were the mascot for the single high school in town, so we knew they were real.
Walking with my sister through a pasture the day we heard the latest alert, I saw her stop in fear and point. “I see something black!” she said breathlessly, fixated on something moving beyond the trees along the gravel road. “It has a yellow shirt on!”
It wasn’t a panther.
So we relaxed and played among the flowers, a field of Black Eyed Susans, a name I didn’t learn until I was almost an adult. We’d been taught to use a racial slur to describe them. “N-word navels.”
We made a day trip to Vicksburg, the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the Civil War. Dad bought miniature Confederate flags for my sister and me, bought us Confederate caps. We ran up and down the steep hills, warned against wasting time with the Yankee monuments and encouraged to pay proper respect to “ours.”
Back in Metairie, the middle-class suburb of New Orleans where we lived, my mother forbade me to watch the show Julia starring Diahann Carroll. I was also denied access later to the show Room 222.
Back in Metairie, the middle-class suburb of New Orleans where we lived, my mother forbade me to watch the show Julia starring Diahann Carroll. I was also denied access later to the show Room 222. “It has a black person in it,” my mother explained.
One year, our family attended weekly meetings for several months to prepare for the Elks parade on Mardi Gras, the most prestigious day of the entire carnival season. We’d follow Rex down St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. I was going to throw out beads and doubloons! The kids at school would be so jealous!
At the last minute, though, the group voted against participating. It was just too dangerous to be downtown with all those black people. They sometimes threw bottles at white people on the floats.
During my early years, Mom sometimes brought my sister and me to the French Quarter to tour the wax museum or the natural history museum. We ate beignets at the Café du Monde. We watched movies at the Robert E. Lee Theater on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, ate Italian sweets on Jefferson Davis Parkway. Sometimes, we shopped along Canal Street. Those adventures all ended once there were “too many black people.” My parents did permit me to go down to Lee Circle on Mardi Gras with my best friend and his mom, as long as I promised to be careful. Black people sometimes put razor blades on the tips of their shoes and kicked white people. Best if I wore boots for extra protection.
My suburban public school wasn’t integrated until I reached fifth grade. By the time I reached ninth grade, my parents put my sister and me in a private Baptist school that banned blacks. “We’re not prejudiced,” the headmistress explained. “We just don’t approve of interracial dating.”
One of my classmates was a David Duke fan. The head of the KKK lived only a mile from the school. Several of my other classmates encouraged everyone not to elect the lone Hispanic girl in our class as one of the cheerleaders.
But at home I defiantly watched shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons. I wasn’t prejudiced. Racism was stupid.
Though my parents had both grown up Baptist, we’d all converted to Mormonism in 1971, and in June of 1978, the Prophet announced a new revelation. Black men were now “allowed” to hold the priesthood. The only local news affiliate to cover the story was WDSU. “They’re owned by blacks,” my mom explained in a what-can-you-expect tone.
My mom sounds like a horrible person, and her racism was clearly destructive. But growing up with her was a mostly wonderful experience. That’s a large part of why “good” people harboring terrible prejudices don’t see themselves as “bad.” It’s almost as if racists like my mother have Multiple Personality Disorder. 97 of their personalities are good, upstanding people. It’s the remaining 3 who are criminally insane. But it’s too uncomfortable to rehabilitate those three, so the other 97 simply go into denial.
It’s not unlike what a friend of mine coping with schizophrenia has had to endure throughout her life, mean voices in her head telling her things that aren’t true, making her and everyone around her miserable until she was finally able to start treating her disease.
When I turned nineteen, it was time for me to “serve” as a volunteer missionary for two years. Mormons have no say over where they’re sent, so waiting for “the call” to arrive in the mail was excruciating. What if I were sent someplace boring? Or scary? One of my aunt’s boyfriends had gone to Japan. The man she eventually married had served in Finland. When my letter arrived from Salt Lake, I ran upstairs and opened it.
When I came back down, my mother’s brows furrowed. “Where are you going?” She frowned.
“It’s someplace that has food you really like.”
My mother’s shoulders slumped. “Mexico,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “You’re going to Mexico.”
“It’s someplace else that has food you like.”
My mother’s eyes lit up. She started jumping up and down, clapping. “You’re going to Italy! You’re going to Italy!”
Everyone at church was excited, too. “Oh, you’ll get to learn Spanish,” they said.
“Uh, no, I think they speak Italian in Italy.”
“Be careful with the water. You don’t want to get sick.”
Italy was wonderful and miserable and incredible and depressing, the negatives largely a result of the oppressive missionary lifestyle. Every moment of our lives was regimented, our actions constantly monitored. One of the songs we learned in Culture Capsule in the Missionary Training Center was “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in Italian. My first four assignments were as companion to various district leaders, the position jokingly referred to as “District N-word.” Told every day our lack of faith and success was a disappointment to God, I became suicidal for the first time in my life and wanted desperately to go home. Of course, doing so would have labeled me a failure among other Mormons for the remainder of my life. My mother, eager to help, wrote back after my latest unhappy letter. “If you want to come home,” she said, “I’ll hide you in the attic.”
I plodded on, and my time in Italy became a transformative experience. I saw abject poverty for the first time. I witnessed a kidnapping near the train station in Rome. I was caught in a Camorra gang war in Naples. Teens threw heavy rocks at us because they hated Americans. I was spit on and kicked, chased with garden shears, had guns pulled on me. I was approached by dozens and dozens of “gypsies.” A woman asked me to marry her daughter and bring her to the U.S.
I met folks from Ghana and Nigeria and Somalia. An African woman the sister missionaries were teaching was abducted. We never saw her again.
And then I returned to Metairie, struggling with culture shock in my conservative, white neighborhood as I began my sophomore year at the University of New Orleans.
When I saw a young man on campus I’d known growing up, I was surprised to realize for the first time that he was black. I’d always been confused at how different he looked from everyone else in the family, but it had never occurred to me he wasn’t white until I saw him in a different setting.
I returned to Italy a year later, becoming engaged to a former Italian sister missionary I’d worked with who was a Communist. We agreed I should complete my degree in America before we married, and then I’d move back to Italy and teach English.
I absolutely loved literature. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and more. I even liked Shakespearean sonnets and Middle English lit.
My Chaucer professor chastised the class one day for laughing at a story from the Canterbury Tales in which townspeople blamed the plague on Jews. “Medieval people were so stupid,” a student said.
“You don’t think people today bear illogical prejudices against certain groups?” the professor asked pointedly.
Years later, I wasn’t surprised to run into my professor in a gay bookstore with his black partner.
At church, the first black man in our congregation was ordained a high priest, the most prestigious position at the local level. My father still used the N-word every time he spoke of the man, and he laughed every time I corrected him. I asked another high priest if he felt any of the others in the group were prejudiced. “No,” he said. “We believe in equality.”
“So you wouldn’t mind if your son married Brother Alfonse’s daughter?”
“Well, we don’t approve of interracial marriage, of course, but that doesn’t mean we’re bigoted.”
How blind, I wondered, could these people be? Thank God I wasn’t biased.
I broke up with my fiancée after I realized I was always going to be gay. I came out while in grad school, was called to a Court of Love, and was excommunicated, my stake president and other members of the High Council telling me I’d denied the Holy Ghost and betrayed God. I was asked to remove my Mormon underwear.
But I felt free for the first time and soon met my first lover. We lived in a mobile home in St. Rose on the edge of the swamp past the airport. Everyone in the neighborhood lived in trailers and mobile homes.
Everyone was white.
Well, almost everyone. One day, two white neighbors stopped by our place. “We just told that guy down the street he’d better have that black guy staying with him move out or we’d burn them out.” The men laughed. “What do you think about that?”
I could hardly say what I was really thinking: “Sure, the two faggots out here in the boondocks are thrilled to hear violent, bigoted threats.”
We decided to move to the Marigny, just outside the French Quarter. There I noticed the neighborhood public schools always kept their classroom windows open in the sweltering heat and humidity. My elementary school in Jefferson Parish had air conditioning twenty-five years earlier, but schools in Orleans Parish still didn’t. And I’d never known that until I was almost thirty.
Nearly every public school in New Orleans had a mostly black student body. Virtually every white public school student attended a magnet school for the “gifted.” Nearly all the remaining white kids attended a variety of private Catholic schools or a single private school serving mostly Jewish students.
My first teaching job was at SUNO—Southern University at New Orleans. It was a public university, historically black like its sister campus in Baton Rouge. This was the 1990s, and the mostly black SUNO and mostly white UNO sat hardly a mile apart, two public universities still quite separate and not equal.
For the next ten years, I taught evening classes at SUNO, all the while thinking I wasn’t prejudiced, every semester learning I still was. Some of that realization, unfortunately, didn’t take place until years after I left campus. Looking back, I squirm at some of the things I did and said. I made a particularly awkward comment once in response to a general rebellion over the amount of homework I assigned. “We work during the day, Mr. Townsend. We don’t have time to read all this stuff.”
“You people,” I said. I’d meant it as “you students,” but boy, I sure learned something that evening.
Almost every semester, an angry student would meet with me after class. “You can’t give me a D on this paper! I’m a high school English teacher!”
I was told by the assistant dean, “You’re penalizing the students for being black. You need to understand the background of your students and take that into account when you grade.” While three major grammar errors would fail a paper at the University of New Orleans, where I also taught, students could have 15 at SUNO, and I was still expected to award a passing grade. But after I complied, the assistant dean called me back to her office. “You’re trying to keep the students ignorant and keep them in their place!”
In class, we sometimes discussed current topics related to race, and when the Rodney King riots erupted in Los Angeles, one student defended an attack on a white woman, married to a black man, dragged out of her car. My student felt that every white person got what they deserved. When a young white woman, an American college student, was killed by a mob in a South African township where she’d been registering people to vote, one of my students said, “White people always think we need their help. They were right to kill her.”
On my way to work one evening, I heard about the Oklahoma City bombing on the radio and upon arrival asked the assistant dean if she’d heard the news. She ignored me, so I thought I hadn’t spoken loudly enough and repeated the question.
“Maybe the FBI did it!” she finally spat at me. I walked to my class stunned.
I received perhaps a dozen pieces of hate mail in my office mailbox one semester. One note simply declared, “The White Man is the Devil,” but most of the letters were long rants. I tried comparing the handwriting on the notes with that on the essays of my students, but I could never find a match. I even compared the handwriting with that of the assistant dean, who’d told me flat out, “I think you’re a racist, and I’m going to do everything I can to get rid of you.” It wasn’t her handwriting, either.
The moment the dean retired, the assistant dean got her wish, and I was no longer an instructor in the Evening and Weekend College. The truth is…the assistant dean was right about me. I have no doubt I said and did racist things I don’t even remember now because I was unaware of their significance and impact. It never occurred to me to study racism because I was convinced I wasn’t racist and therefore had no personal behavior or mindset to change. Even in an atmosphere that offered ample evidence to the contrary, I’d chosen to remain ignorant that such a thing as structural racism even existed, much less that I had an obligation to help dismantle it. At the time, I was relieved not to be rehired after the new dean took over. I’d no longer have to face feeling so uncomfortable every day.
Only I did.
The staff in a store on the “black” side of St. Claude refused to wait on me. Once, when I honked impatiently at a car taking too long to turn on Elysian Fields, the black driver made a U-turn and chased me for blocks. I gave up driving, recognizing my growing irritation with traffic wasn’t going to improve. I soon found myself almost always the lone white passenger on public transportation. My family was aghast that I’d deliberately chosen to do something so reckless and dangerous. I only saw a single white driver in all the years I rode the bus around New Orleans.
A priest walking his dog one night two blocks from my Marigny apartment was shot and killed by a black man during a mugging. A woman jogging a block past that was shot by a black man during her morning jog. A tourist at a bed and breakfast two blocks in another direction was shot and killed by a black man. A friend of mine was murdered in his Marigny apartment by a black man. Another man was found tied to a chair in his apartment after a black man broke in. A man was seriously injured and his wife killed by a black man during a home invasion six doors down from me. Two of my friends were beaten in the French Quarter by black men. Another had his ribs fractured in a mugging Uptown. A white woman I knew was attacked stepping out of her car.
I understood by this point that white people had ensured a black underclass trapped in poverty with limited access to good education and decent jobs. But that didn’t keep me from crossing the street when I saw a black man walking down the sidewalk.
Another friend was murdered by a white man during a gay bashing. But in my mind, the killer wasn’t “white.” He was a “religious homophobe.”
One of my white coworkers looked hauntingly like Jeffrey Dahmer. I gasped when I saw him out on Mardi Gras day, leading his black lover around on a chain through the French Quarter.
Another coworker told me he was hoping to get into med school based on his minority status. “What minority are you?” I asked.
One of my sex buddies complained once about the extra layer of discrimination he faced as part of two oppressed groups. “What’s the other group?” I asked.
I’m not colorblind. I’m simply inattentive. I didn’t even notice my husband had blue eyes until we’d been together two years. And in New Orleans, “black” covered a wide variety of skin tones.
Do I have any bias, any internalized white superiority?
Of course I do! How could I not? I recognize I must constantly and actively combat it every single day.
I learned in a History of the English Language course that the names of some towns in England are of Celtic origin, going back as far as 800 BCE. Some names still exist from inhabitants living on the British Isles even before the Celts. The residents since then have resisted any alteration in the names despite influxes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Normans. “Place names are very resistant to change,” my professor explained.
But a simple stroll through the French Quarter of New Orleans showed me that change was possible. Ursulines Avenue used to be named Calle del Arsenal. Governor Nicholls bore the prior name of Calle del Hospital. Decatur Street had previously been named Camino Real y Muelle at one point and Rue de la Levee at another. And Jackson Square had first been Plaza d’Armas.
Working on my genealogy as a teen, I learned the 1850 census was the gold standard for information. I was confused at first to discover that the area my ancestors had lived in almost since their arrival in Mississippi had originally been named Lawrence County. I’d only known it as Lincoln County. Obviously, it would not have been named that before the Civil War. Yet despite my family’s continued racism, no one seemed to suffer unduly because of the renaming.
Mormons do genealogy so we can perform “proxy work” in temples and baptize our ancestors posthumously. In a university library, I discovered a letter from one of my great-great-grandfathers who fought at the battle of Vicksburg, in which he petitioned his commanding officer to transfer him away from the fighting because he had hemorrhoids. We were all so happy to know he was now Mormon in heaven.
Andrew Jackson was the president who’d signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, opening the land now known as Mississippi to my ancestors, who all arrived within the following decade. The capital of Mississippi is, unsurprisingly, named after him.
Many among my family and friends talked of Confederate symbols as part of their “heritage.” But since the Confederacy only existed for five years, what they’re really celebrating is the white supremacy that both pre- and post-dated the Civil War.
Almost all of my white friends and family, like me, never felt they were prejudiced. Some still adamantly deny it. But if we can’t make the most minor effort to change a few street names and university buildings, relocate a few statues to museums, and agree that naming military bases after traitors was a mistake that must be both repudiated and rectified, then our “lack” of prejudice doesn’t mean very much.
The problem, of course, is that most white conservatives don’t think the Confederates were traitors. I’m well aware of how these folks do treat traitors.
And I can guarantee they’re not waxing nostalgic over me.
After Hurricane Katrina, I relocated to the Pacific Northwest, but on a return visit to New Orleans, I heard the daughter of one of my friends talk about her work with the National Guard immediately after the storm. She was assigned to make sure everyone evacuated. “This one old black man wouldn’t leave,” she said. “He wanted to stay in his house.” She shook her head. “He told me, ‘You can’t make me leave,’ so I told him, ‘I can shoot you if you don’t.’”
She thought this was a funny anecdote.
After several weeks of Black Lives Matter protests, after taking several more online courses on bias and diversity through my employer in addition to the in-person workshops I participated in over the two preceding years, I was unhappy to discover that my latest internalized bias test still shows I have a “strong preference” for white people over black. If I keep taking this test every year for the rest of my life, I’m not sure the results will ever change much. Maybe, if I continue to work at it, my score may eventually evolve to, “slight preference.”
The least we can do as “good” white people, and I mean absolutely the very least, is remove monuments to racism from public spaces and rename the streets, university buildings, and military bases honoring those who caused so much suffering and death to our fellow citizens.
If farmers in Mississippi, middle-class churchgoers in Metairie, and so many other white people can still feel the sting of losses incurred over a five-year period more than 150 years ago, can we not manage to feel the slightest empathy for folks who have suffered continually for more than 400 years?
We must make this small token of repentance now so we can move on to addressing the more serious aspects of structural and institutional racism.
But that’s really why there’s so much resistance to this step, isn’t it? Because everyone knows there’s a long road beyond it.
That journey doesn’t have to be a Trail of Tears, though, or a Middle Passage. It can be a Path to Reconciliation, a double-laned highway to both secular and religious morality. For my Mormon friends and family, it can lead to the Tree of Life.
The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but it’s also paved by resentment and a refusal to accept the truth.
So let’s choose to march—humbly, haltingly, boldly, however we can—up the Road to Peace.
Justice is a choice. And we can make it.