THE BLOG
04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Cancer, John Mayer and "Please Don't Call Me Racist" : Diffusing the R-Bomb

Perhaps the most dreaded words in the English language, the C-word and the R-word, are uttered in hushed tones and in mortal fear of being overheard or attributed to oneself.

It wasn't until recovering from stage IV uterine cancer that I began to notice the parallels between cancer and racism -- and potentially similar paths of recovery.

Upon hearing the declaration 'you have cancer' there is an explosion followed by a string of incredulous, incoherent stammering: 'but I can't...I always thought..you mean that..." and eventually a pulsing rush of hot of blood to the brain. A home invasion of sorts whereby anger, fear and outrage blow the doors off of an otherwise peaceful existence.

Probably not unlike the words I wrote the other day in a brief blog where I commented on the recent remarks of John Mayer in the now famous Playboy/Rolling Stone interviews.

Like cancer, uttering the word 'racist' has the ability to detonate and inflame the most sensible and sanguine of people and catapult them into temporary psychosis. The heart speeds up, the mind shuts down and fight or flight mode prevails.

If it were possible to harness the electrical charge emitted from the word 'racist', the energy crisis would be solved.

In the previous blog, I stated that Mayer 's remarks illustrate that racism resides within all white people and that "one cannot be raised in these United States with the history of racial oppression and hatred and not be racist".

The last time I spoke these words were unfortunately during a program about 'self segregation' on CNN's Paula Zahn Now. Because the format of the show was more like a mud-wrestling match, there was little opportunity to offer context or clarification. Within a month came the cancer diagnosis and my attention was turned inward.

For some, the assertion that "racism resides within all white people" was more offensive than Mayer's comments about black women, white women or gays.

At last count there were over 400 comments,100 tweets and personal emails poured in from around the country. The responses ranged from anger, outrage and disgust to congratulations, thanks and a few 'right-ons'.

For those who felt attacked and immediately wrote to tell me 'how the cow ate the cabbage'--as my Southern ex-mother in law used to say--I heard you.

Intended to inspire debate and conversation, the brief blog lacked sufficient framework for such a bold statement. And although saying that "racism resides in all white people" is indeed what I meant, without proper context, for some, it had the effect of being inflammatory.

What was not stated is that there are degrees of racism. Certainly it was not meant to imply that all--or even most--white folks are card carrying members of the KKK or a George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Rush Limbaugh type of overt racist. But see, that's the dangerous thing about the "R" word. If we don't fit with the stereotype of a racist, we reject the notion completely.

So often, the question of the day is who is racist and who is not, as explored in Bart Motes' piece titled "Is Harry Reid a Racist?. We are obsessed with identifying the culprit, as long as it is not us.

Much like the cancer alert, the mere suggestion that 'racism' lives anywhere in 'our neighborhood' and the shutters fly up, the brain shuts down and the 'fight is on'. End of conversation.

There are, of course many white people for whom the concept that racism lives inside them is not revelatory, threatening nor damning. People who wrestle daily with what it means to be white and who genuinely believe that without equity there is no peace.

And there are many whites who 'check themselves' regularly for the subtle signs of racism and how through attitude an action they might personally be contributing to systemic racism in one form or another.

Last years some 900 participants attended the 10th Annual White Privilege Conference in Memphis, Tennessee in Spring 2009 where both whites and non-whites from across the country gathered to talk about white and non-white responsibility in dismantling systemic racism.

As evidenced by the 400 comments in just a few days, it is clear that racial dialog is not only needed but desperately desired. And since the word 'racism' carries such an electric charge, I was asked if there was a way to speak about racism without using the "R" word so as to avoid defensiveness and anger. Reluctantly, I agreed to try.

For the sake of this article and in hopes of furthering a meaningful discussion, instead of using the "R" word, wherever possible, the phrase "internalized racial biases" will be substituted. For example: "internalized racial biases reside within all white people".

Saying that internalized racial biases reside within white people isn't inflammatory or disrespectful or self-hating. It doesn't mean all white people are 'bad' or don't suffer inequities and hardships or injustices. It also doesn't mean that non-whites don't commit acts of prejudice and discrimination or have their own healing to do.

And of course, non-whites have internalized racial biases as well. The difference is that because of systemic racism, non-whites tend to internalize negative attitudes about themselves instead of superiority or entitlement.

A startling example of internalized racial bias was a study published in the LA Times wherein 400,000 people were anonymously surveyed about racial attitudes. After isolating the responses of medical professionals, researchers determined that the majority of all physicians--of all racial and ethnic groups--showed an implicit preference for white Americans compared with black Americans--except for black doctors who on average did not favor either group.

Having survived chemotherapy treatment and the enormous anxiety involved, I cannot imagine the compounded stress of wondering if my race is going to effect the level of care I receive.

For many, the connection between cancer and internalized racial biases may not resonate. Having wrestled with both, I am convinced the erosion of the body, mind and soul are what is at stake if ignored.

As angry and in denial as I was at being diagnosed with cancer, what I learned was that it wasn't personal or indicative of a defect in my character or my body. Just because I didn't want it, wasn't going to make it go away. Cancer didn't care how many healthy salads I ordered for lunch or how much broccoli I had incorporated into my meals.

Cancer wasn't condemnation or reflective of my integrity as a human being. And as it turns out, everyone has cancer cells. What determines whether or not the cells will multiply and attack the body in full blown disease depends on any number of factors: lifestyle, environment, diet, genetics, emotional health and well being etc.

As with cancer, we are predisposed to internalized racial biases through our ancestry, political history and environment. Depending on education, class, emotional and physical health and spiritual beliefs, we consciously or unconsciously reinforce systemic oppression or disrupt it with our words and actions-- daily.

Just because we have non-white co-workers, a 'best friend who is black' or a spouse who is non-white doesn't mean we are immune to racial bias. As evidenced by John Mayer with the public revocation of his 'hood pass'.

According to Oxford dictionary 'entitlement' is a guarantee of access to benefits because of rights or by agreement through law. In essence, like the R-word, it implies rightful superiority. Could it be this very sense of entitlement that allowed Mayer to speak so freely and disparagingly about black women, white women and gays--and to believe he was without recrimination?

From where does this sense of entitlement originate?

The most powerful tool used in the system of white supremacy is the mind--where internalized racial biases reside.

For several centuries, fear and hatred were required to perpetuate white dominance. Our ancestors were encouraged--some more willingly than others--to cultivate and adhere to a system that required white people believe in and practice white dominance. Of course some didn't, became collaborators and abolitionist but the majority, silently benefited from the system.

After 400 years of legally promoting and cultivating white superiority and ensuring white advantage, it took blood, sacrifice, decades of resistance and countless brave souls--non-whites and whites together--to effect systemic change. The recent victories are reflected in voting rights, civil rights, housing and employment rights, affirmative action etc.

It is however, absurd and unrealistic to believe that 50 short years later we have 'undone' several hundred years of the delusional thinking that was required to uphold an insane system without a collective process of healing and recovery.

We point to the successes of Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and of course, Barack Obama as evidence that white supremacy is history.

We claim that Obama's election is proof positive of a post-racial America regardless that in addition to Obama's stellar credentials and a Harvard Law degree, it took him two years of campaigning and an estimated two billion dollars to convince the American public to hire him.

As historic as Obama's presidency is, it hardly translates into an all access pass for young black males entering the workplace when the unemployment rate for African Americans is projected to reach a 25-year high in 2010.

Although Internalized racial bias is an intangible buried within, it is often felt viscerally by non-whites. And sometimes what is not said above a whisper is as damaging as--if not more than--what is casually blurted out in a Playboy interview.

And it appears that the deeper the internalized racial bias is buried, the more adamantly one rejects the notion of personal accountability.

As writer/author Tim Wise points out in his book "Between Barack and A Hard Place" "in 1963 roughly two-thirds of whites told Gallup pollsters that blacks were treated equally in white communities".

This means that "In August 1963, as 200,000 people marched on Washington... while listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's famous 'I have a Dream Speech", most whites seeing the news that evening were, in effect, thinking to themselves, what's the problem, exactly...?"

Is it possible that we don't have any more perspective on our own internalized racial biases then we did back in 1963?

Those of us who are classified and who 'identify' as white have inherited several centuries of reinforcement that we are entitled. This is countered or reinforced by the families we are born into, the schools and churches we attend and whether raised in wealth or poverty.

Whether we deny that residual effects of systemic discrimination live within us today and are damaging for non-whites, there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise.

In the documentary, The Angry Heart, experts analyze the impact of a wide variety of factors including depression, stress, diet, smoking and other lifestyle issues and make it clear--for African-Americans specifically--such factors are inseparable from "internalized racial biases".

With all of the evidence pointing towards the existence of internalized racial bias, doesn't it seem that denial is crazy-making for both whites and non-whites?

If this weren't so, then why do so many intelligent, otherwise compassionate and loving people turn blood red and raise their fists in the air when the "R" word is spoken?

I'm happy to use the phrase 'internalized racial' bias to make the discussion more palatable and safe for some to enter into an honest dialog. But the truth is that, like cancer cells, internalized racial biases are deadly.

According to numerous studies African Americans overall experience higher levels of stress and experience greater risk in heart disease, breast cancer and infant mortality. According to the American Diabetes Association, African Americans are nearly twice as likely as whites to develop type 2 diabetes and have rates of diabetes, asthma and the list goes on.

When we reject all the scientific studies about bias and the negative effects experienced by people of color reflected in health care, criminal justice, education etc. and we refuse to believe when non-whites express how they experience 'internalized racial bias', we are left with two conclusions: 1) All the research is wrong. 2) That non-whites must be imagining and/or exaggerating their experiences.

This is not to say the all claims of racial discrimination are 100% valid and As MTSU Professor, scholar and multi-cultural expert Dr. Jacqueline Wade says "We all have a nickel in the quarter of racism".

Left unchecked, undiagnosed and untreated our biases continue to wreak havoc on our psyches, our spirits and eventually erode our insides--all the while making us all feel crazy.

Luckily for John Mayer, there will be another high-profile internalized racial bias outburst in the next news cycle. And like Mayer, they will be horrified, confused and contrite for having exposed a part of themselves they have long denied.

And many of us will inhale the scandalous headlines and exhale with relief knowing the 'racist' is someone else.

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