“I’m John and I’m a racist.”
No, I haven’t been drinking. In fact, I haven’t had a drink since December 3, 2019… which means that the other day I just celebrated 9 months of sobriety. Since I don’t drink anymore (well, at least for today) a significant part of my being translates that into “I’m not an alcoholic.” Which, of course, would mean I can drink again. Yay! And yet, when I attend AA meetings which I do a few times a week, I introduce myself with “Hi, I’m John, I’m an alcoholic.” I still frequently question whether I’m really an alcoholic. I’ve gone days and weeks without a drink over the years. I’ve mostly stayed out of trouble (except when I caused, well, big trouble) and I like to think I am still a good person (as long as I’m not drinking, of course!)
So what does alcoholism have to do with racism?? Let me see if I can connect my thoughts here.
I haven’t used the “N” word since I was in high school – yes, growing up in Cincinnati in the 80’s it was used here and there and I wasn’t immune. But (says the typical white guy, in this case me) it was “just joking around.” I had and still have black friends and we all employed what would be considered racist language today (there I go again!). Some of my best friends growing up were black – RIP Rod ☹️.
And, to top things off, I grew up in a household that openly and vocally valued and pressed for diversity in the neighborhood and the workplace. How could I possibly be a racist, I’ve asked myself many times over the past months. Oh, and also, my first real boss at J&J was black, and he was the man – as in THE MAN. I loved that guy – JoJo Walters. He taught me so much – about sales, selling the most obscure features to our docs and nurses in the OR, shining my shoes, keeping my car clean, and most importantly always believing in myself. I’ve hired black, transgender employees, one who practiced witchcraft which I still don’t fully comprehend, but celebrated their achievements like I do any of their white, straight counterparts. So I’m not racist, right?
Wrong. I had it so wrong.
When I first heard myself utter the words “Hi, I’m John and I’m an alcoholic”, I felt shame, remorse, defensive, and self-incriminating. I desperately wanted not to be an alcoholic. I wanted to be a good person who could drink responsibly 100% of the time. In short order, perhaps a few weeks after attending my first AA meeting, I learned that declaring myself an alcoholic was not the end, but the very, very beginning. The beginning of a new exploration into my mind, my heart, and my soul – searching for a more consistent, stable life that didn’t include alcohol. The first step is acknowledging the problem. A problem that is often invisible not only to the drinker, in this case, but even to those closest to him who do (but often don’t) behave similarly.
If I can admit to being an alcoholic (while still not fully believing it, but knowing it to be true) I can certainly parlay that into admitting that I’m a racist (while still not fully believing it, but knowing it also to be true).
When I think about it honestly, it’s impossible that I am NOT a racist.
By merely being a white participant taking advantage of the visible and invisible advantages bestowed upon me as a white male, from all that I’ve read and discussed these past few months, I am pushing racism forward without even knowing it. It’s only when I acknowledge that racism surrounds me constantly – like the air that we breathe – that I have a chance of acknowledging it and actively working to reverse it. I’ve heard a lot about anti-racism since June 1, and I suppose if I lose that initial “rage” I felt during the 6-8 weeks following George Floyd’s death (which, to be honest, I have lost somewhat) I’ll fall back into the natural habit of racism and discrimination without even thinking about it. All of us have to work harder than ever not to let that happen.
So, as a start, just as I do at AA, I will continue to acknowledge that “I’m John, and I am a racist.” Doing so will – hopefully – help me develop the new lens and muscles required to take actions that will ultimately be required by millions of us to reverse this stain on our country’s past, present, and – if we’re not careful – future.
“What else are you going to do besides acknowledge this?” someone close to me asked after reading a draft of this post. “What actions are you going to take?” It almost felt like I was back in the board room with pressure to create and adopt a smart sounding strategy with goals and metrics tied to them to measure success. But the question was a good one, and it made me think.
“For now, all I can do is keep showing up. Keep coming, as they say. If racism is all around us, and I am racist, I won’t have the right answers or solutions anytime soon.” I continued. “But I can keep showing up. Like Team Boloco did at the Massachusetts State House in late July. Like the Boloco team did in June after the riots in Boston caused a team member to speak up about Boloco’s own responsibilities related to racism. Like a few dozen white men – many leaders of BCorp companies and BLab itself – have as part of a group called “White Men for Racial Justice”. Nothing happens when you don’t show up, and in something as complex as racism, there can be no guarantees that every time you show up will feel like progress has been made – like you somehow earned a positive “return” on your time invested. That has to be ok. Less judgment, less concern about checking off boxes to show that “right” action was taken, more just being present, listening, looking for windows to take good action, perhaps even to cause a little good trouble here and there. Maybe if we are just there, more often than we have been, we’ll know what to do when the time is right. It may sound like a cop out, but showing up to AA meetings every day without specific goals has worked wonders for millions, and maybe the same can happen for racism. I hope. At least its a good start.
In conclusion, I want to highlight a small but significant event that literally just took place. I googled “I’m a racist” looking for a good image to feature for this post, and the top 3 hits were the exact opposite… “I’m not a racist.” Come on, Google.
(Note: I feel very uncomfortable publishing this because I feel like I’m likely saying something “wrong” or might get attacked, or something… but I suppose that discomfort is the very best reason to post it. I’m 50 years old, after all… if not now, when?)
Comments and call outs appreciated.
Day 5 🏇🏽
Well done, John! It took courage and selflessness to post this writing. I feel everyone can use a little of this wisdom. Keep showing up!
Thx Paul. Appreciate that.
Thanks for sharing this brave and honest post. It took courage, humility, candor, and real thoughtfulness. As a Black man who knows many people in common with you (but not you directly) and also your father, I stand ready to support your healing however I can. In the meantime, know that I see your admitted racism, like you admitted alcoholism, as an illness and not a defect, as a set of changeable habits and not your identity. You can and will heal, and your leadership will help heal others. Stay safe!
Thanks for sharing this brave, honest, and thoughtful post. As a Black man who knows many people in common with you (but not you directly) and also your father, I stand ready to support your healing however I can. In the meantime, know that I see your admitted racism, like you admitted alcoholism, as an illness and not a defect, as a set of changeable habits and not your identity. You can and will heal, and your leadership will help heal others. Stay safe!
Have you read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist? He explores new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. Diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic colon cancer about a year an a half ago, and like you, I believe he wrote this in part because “…if not now, when?”
Should have written: “He was diagnosed with stage IV…”
I admire your courage John. This is something we have been talking about int he book community too. It’s not possible not to be poisoned by racism. Saying nothing isn’t enough anymore. I agree we need to do the anti-racist work necessary and stand as allies. Have you read White Fragility? Kevin and I found it was an excellent resource.
“When I think about it honestly, it’s impossible that I am NOT a racist.” — this is where your earnest self-reflection seems to have gone off into a ditch. Just because racism exists, and it surely does, isn’t it YOUR own thoughts, actions & attitudes that define you as an individual? If alcohol is all around us, and alcoholism a gut-wrenching, life-wrecking addiction, does that mean anyone who has a drink is an alcoholic? (I am trying to follow your logic using the same metaphor.) From what you describe, your thoughts, attitudes & actions seem to indicate you are in fact not a racist. How is it “impossible” that you aren’t a racist; is it simply because of the color of your skin, something over which you have no control? If you lived in a place where your skin color put you in the minority, would those around you in the majority also automatically be deemed racist in this worldview? I think your journey of self-reflection and desire to be part of a solution is admirable, I just wonder if painting all members of any one group (based on race, religion, orientation, politics) with the same wide brush, is accurate or helpful. I am guessing that most thoughts that begin with “ALL ____s ARE _____ “ is not only factually incorrect, but if you replaced the word “whites” with “Muslims” or “LGBTIAQ” the premise of “impossible not to be” takes on a whole new perspective, and would in fact be the very kind of stereotyping you are seeking to overcome & eradicate…
It’s sounds like you feel attacked by the idea that all white peoples have racist habits and ideals due to their complicit participation in the American system. John has humbly acknowledged that he, like every other white person, has benefited from or contributed to this oppressive system in one way or another, intentionally or unintentionally. What he is saying is not stereotyping but rather a fact. This statement can be made without it being a personal attack against you or John. This piece to me is about self awareness and growth, I encourage you read this piece again and self reflect. You can do incredibly good acts but still have inherent biases that you haven’t unpacked, or continue to do small things that perpetuate or endorse systemic inequity. The greatest act
Is realizing that you are participating in this system and consequently there is always room to learn and grow as a white person. John, thank you for sharing this piece.
John. This is Lauren Dwartz Drazen ‘92. Liza Knapp shared this with our group of ‘92 friends and I am so glad she did. I have been trying to explain this to all those who are insulted by the idea that they are racist. I don’t know how to explain that we all are. May I share on FB? Thank you for your honesty and thoughtful post!
Thank you John. I love you.
Your friend Terri Ruff (Bourne)
I admire your bravery in sharing your personal journey and your desire to put forth actions to make a difference. Thank you for your personal commitment and for all that you do for our City; you are making a difference.
I’ve got four years of abstinence under my belt and, as a result, I’ve been through a whirlwind of emotions. I’ve also gotten some clarity too… It is clear to me that I am a good person with issues. It is also clear to me, as a newly recovering drunk, that my mind has been susceptible to the whims of thought. I’m worried that you may be questioning your ethos when, in fact, it might be a coordinated effort that has lead you to your newly enshrined belief…
I have been called “racist” over the years and, honestly, I’ve been afraid of being called “racist” so I’ve been quiet. That changed when the frequency of the “racist” charge became more frequent. My in-laws called me “racist” when I refused to condemn Donald Trump; they’re Democrats… I don’t let the charge of “racist” hurt me anymore because it’s, seemingly, the last refuge of the victim. The term “racist” has been convoluted by the Democrats to such a degree that its meaning and sting have evaporated.
I didn’t know, until recently, that this effort to smear White people with the charge of “racism” has been a coordinated effort… It has White people questioning themselves, in many cases, unnecessarily. I don’t believe you’re “racist” but it doesn’t matter what I think… It matters when you think.
I’d love for you to read a post I wrote called “Critical Race Theory Has Been Defunded by the Trump Administration”. I urge you to take an hour or so to go down the rabbit hole… Watch the entire YouTube video that was posted by Casey Petersen. Your eyes may be opened…
Appreciate your thoughtfulness and vulnerability, pep. Keep on fighting the fight and looking inward!
Pepps, you are amazing. I have not done the “I am an alcoholic” work yet, but I am daily doing the “I am a Racist” work. And I will not stop. Just like you. We will/do make mistakes, we listen, we course correct, we are accountable and apologize sincerely and we open our hearts. We all grow. As Martin Luther King said, “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” If you have a chance, listen to this stunning 47min talk MLK gave at Stanford University to a room full of White men in 1967. It could be today.
John, thank you for putting your vulnerability and truth out there with such courage. You are an inspiration.
Kim Anstatt Morton
This is truly an amazing piece that took my breath away. It needs to go viral!