A white Iowan’s thoughts on how to be less racist

Racism was once much more obvious – lynching, whites only signs, brutal violence condoned by the government, and segregation. Racism is now much more stealthy, and it remains pervasive, dangerous, and tragic.

But, we’re finally talking about racism again as a nation.

Police killings of unarmed black people are being noticed. Disproportionate arrest and incarceration, economic injustice, educational inequality…these are born of racism, and they’re finally making headlines. This is a start, but the systematic breadth and institutionalization of this inequality based upon skin color is a large amount to grasp.

And, if you’re white, like me, understanding racism is even harder because we haven’t experienced the negatives of racism – a cultural construct meant to give power to a “superior” group (white people) to control the “inferior” group (people of color).

I also live in a 92.3% white state. It’s easier to pretend racism isn’t real when mostly everyone around you is white and doesn’t have to deal with discrimination based on skin color.

We don’t listen when a person of color talks about their experience being followed in a store or stopped by the police for nothing at all because we haven’t experienced that. We question it.

We like to believe humans are reasonable, fair, kind, respectful, but the 1960s weren’t that long ago. In 50 years, we cannot simply move on from a time where we had state-sponsored racism and a deeply embedded mentality of justified inequality in the minds of the majority of America.

We all still have our own biases about those with different colors of skin from our own. We feel ashamed of these biases so they remain untouched. Our biases don’t remain without consequence. We act on these biases, whether we recognize them or not. These actions fuel the fire of racism and oppression. I’m forever grateful for the day I had my white privilege laid out for me.

I didn’t have real conversations about racism until I had a Latino partner. I didn’t have to think about the consequences of white peoples’ biases affecting the daily lives of brown and black people until my life was more directly impacted. I consider myself a progressive thinker who analyzes what my actions and my words will do but I was certainly smacked in the face with reality one Saturday.

We were at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market and I was about 19, Moroni was 20. Affirmative action came up. I questioned its necessity. So, Moroni questioned me. I knew racism was real. I knew it was a problem. But, I did not realize its pervasiveness in our society; I did not realize the tragic harm it is still causing. Moroni told me about the times he has been pulled over while driving for absolutely no reason. In one occurrence, the officer told him he had a crack in his windshield. He pulled him over from behind. He would not have been able to see a supposed crack in the windshield.

Moroni had shopping bags in his back seat. The officer asked Moroni to show him receipts to which he responded, “How would I get the bags without purchasing the items?”

Are you trying to reason what the police officer did? Thinking he must have had a reason to pull him over? Ponder what logic the officer used for questioning the legitimacy of Moroni’s purchases, for assuming he was a thief.

If I had shopping bags in my back seat and was pulled over I guarantee you the cop would not ask me if I had the receipts.  Would they ask you?

We all have unconscious and conscious biases – the cop in this situation acted on his and assumed someone he did not know was a criminal. Now, imagine being Moroni – having your character and worth degraded because of the color of your skin.

Being followed in stores, being less likely to get interviews because you don’t have a white-sounding name, racial slurs: these far from rare occurrences are dehumanizing and stem from biases.

It took a very real conversation where Moroni confronted me to recognize there are systems (our justice system, educational system, economic system – yes, capitalism) that feed racism into our institutions (schools, police stations, jobs), as well as feelings, and actions in the US that discriminate against brown and black people. Affirmative action is one meager program to attempt to make the US more equal – a principle we are supposed to hold high – by acknowledging white people have it much easier daily.

I can drive and not be afraid of the police pulling me over. I can walk around the grocery store and not worry the owners or staff are assuming I’m going to steal. I can apply for a job and get called back for an interview without having my resume tossed into a “no” pile because my name is non-white sounding. I can walk into a space and know people are not going to devalue my worth or presume I will commit a negative action because of my skin color.

I am privileged because I am white. I can live a daily life without having to directly deal with the harmful consequences of conscious or unconscious biases.

It is significant to note that our biases and racism negatively impact the entirety of society. When we devalue or discriminate against (consciously or unconsciously) one person, we are putting up a barrier to their potential progress, thus our own as community.

People of color do have to deal with the direct consequences of our biases, of racism. We see racism in the justice system, including policing: minorities are disproportionately arrested, charged with longer sentences, and incarcerated.  A study on California in 2000 found that “African American, Latino and Asian American youth are significantly more likely to be transferred to adult court and sentenced to incarceration than white youths who commit comparable crimes. Compared to white youths, minority youths are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime, 6.2 times more likely to wind up in adult court, and 7 times more likely to be sent to prison by adult court.”

Marijuana usage is roughly the same between blacks and whites, however “blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession,” the ACLU found in a nationwide survey.

And, young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by the police than their white counterparts, according to a Propublica study.

We see racism in education. Black preschoolers are more likely to be suspended than white children, according to NPR. Long-term consequences? Those who are suspended are more likely to drop out and have criminal records. This is also known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Black children make up 18 percent of the preschool population, but represent almost 50 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. Black children are three times more likely to be suspended than white children during K-12.

Why? Black boys are perceived to be older than they actually are, according to research by the American Psychological Association. “The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

Racism is not just engrained in our justice system and our educational system, but these few examples highlight the severity of this issue.

Racism is a debilitating problem in the US that devalues black and brown lives simply because of skin color. It is our responsibility as people to look inward and consider our biases, our own racist tendencies – how we treat other human beings. These are our neighbors, friends, loved ones, members of our community. So, what can we do about it?

  • Take this implicit-association test developed by social psychologists at Harvard, University of Washington, and the University of Virginia to determine what your biases are.
  • Discuss your results.
  • Tell a friend if you see them displaying biases. That friend will hopefully thank you for raising their consciousness.
  • Talk about racism. We know it’s real, and we know it’s destroying lives. It’s our responsibility to fight for equality and progress.


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.