You are racist. Let’s start right there. So am I. If that turns you off immediately, good, keep reading.

Being racist doesn’t make us white people, bad people, it makes us human. I know that seems like a contradiction for the vast majority of us who are consciously wanting to be non-biased, helpful members of humanity. But our brains aren’t helping us do what we need to be doing right now.

Let’s start with the biology of racism.

All of our brains are built for a world where we lived with about 150 or so other individuals that all looked like us. We knew and implicitly trusted these tribe members because we relied heavily on their cooperation for our survival. Anyone who didn’t look like us, was a threat. These outsiders might bring germs, disease, or steal precious resources that were essential to our survival. The “others” were dangerous, and our brains are built to help us survive. Therefore, our biology conveniently created shortcuts to help us stay alive, like the ability to quickly categorize as “like” or “other” and to associate positive and negative attributes accordingly.

As humans, we lived in these small tribes for over 200,000 years. It wasn’t until extremely recent times (by biological standards) in the last 200 years that there have been any massive changes to that system. That’s only 4 generations at best! So not a whole lot of room for our most complex organ (our brains) to have changed their shortcuts. But in a modern world where we are surrounded with and connected to, 8 billion individuals of all races, we are suddenly asking our brains to make massive changes to their wiring that for 200,000 years helped us to survive! That’s not an easy task.

Now compound that biological wiring with cultural systems in America that have always given privilege to white people. From slavery to FHA loans, access to healthcare, and education, the black “other” in America has been disadvantaged by policy, inequitable outcomes and narratives that align unconsciously with our brains’ natural tendency to quickly categorize for “safety.”

If you’re still struggling with the label of being a racist that’s good. That means you’re ready to change. It’s not meant to shame. In fact, Ibram X. Kendi in his enlightening book, How to Be Anti-Racist, talks about not blaming the victim, and includes us white people as victims (as well as victimizers) of racism. Imagine how seeped in racist culture, structure, biological forces you have been throughout your entire life. It reminds me of the much-repeated parable originally told by David Foster Wallace in a 2005 commencement address:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

White people, we are the fish, and racism is our water.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of labels myself and maybe this is my white privilege slipping in here, but I bucked the label of racist for a long time until I realized that being a racist was a practice. It’s not so much that I’m an active racist. I’m not a member of the KKK, I don’t endorse hate crimes, or speak with racial slurs. But I also haven’t put in the work to be anti-racist. I don’t do enough to educate myself, to step into the discomfort, to have difficult conversations and confront racism head on when I witness it. As leaders we need to become practitioners of anti-racism. Because there is no middle ground. There is no way to be a passive anti-racist (or a non-racist). That’s just passive racism. We have to commit each day, each hour to being anti-racist.

This means a lifelong commitment to learning about racism. It means seeking facts from different viewpoints than our own, reading history, understanding the aggressions and microaggressions that your Black colleagues, coworkers, and employees are facing daily both inside and external to your organization.

Until we white leaders are willing to confront these uncomfortable truths, our brains will keep us locked in “safety” mode, and safety for us means others have to live without it. As leaders of organizations, families, and communities, it is our responsibility to take an active role in understanding how our white silence and “safety” directly contributes to racism. Stop being afraid to have the conversations because you “don’t have the right words,” or “you might screw up.” Not having the right words is not an excuse for silence.

Listen to Black people. Reflect on how your own thoughts and actions serve to uphold, or tear down, racist policies. And then speak up to other white people.

This is our (white people) problem to solve