Martin Luther King Jr memorial in Washington, DC. Image credit: mliu92 on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Of course I’m racist

It’s okay to realize you might be, too

Kaila Colbin
9 min readJun 3, 2020


Let me start by saying that I know this is not about me.

This is about justice, and injustice, and what each of us can do to bend the arc of the moral universe just that tiny bit more.

It is not about my fears, my tears, or my grief. It is about what is useful right now. And I’m going to take my cue from Osheta Moore: what is useful is to say, “I’m sorry, I’m listening, and I’m learning.”

I’m here in unwavering solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

I’m here in unwavering solidarity with those who have been proud active allies for longer than I’ve been sentient.

And I’m here to invite those who might be even newer at this than I am to come with me. Even though it’s scary. Even though it’s painful. Even though it’s uncomfortable.

Especially because it’s uncomfortable.

As Brené Brown said, “Opting out of a conversation because it makes you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege.”

Wanting to be a good person isn’t enough. Wanting peace isn’t enough. Trying to not be racist isn’t enough. We have to be anti-racist. And—like so much of the brutally difficult yet essential work in this life—being anti-racist starts within ourselves.

Charles Baudelaire said, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest trick white supremacy ever pulled was convincing the world that people are either racist or we’re not.

Nobody wants to be racist. To a white person, being called racist is the worst slur imaginable—the ultimate sign you are a Bad Person.

So we twist ourselves into knots to say things like, “I’m not racist, but…”

Or we scramble to point out all the ways in which we couldn’t possibly be racist: what with our Black friend, and that one teacher we had, and that TV show we like.

Or—worse—we indulge in both-sides whataboutism. How come it’s okay to say racial slurs against white people? Doesn’t affirmative action discriminate against whites?

But here’s the thing: society itself is racist.

Don’t think so? Think it’s only about individual bad apples? Try this experiment: Ask yourself, as renowned anti-racism teacher and activist Jane Elliott did, whether you, as a white person, would be happy to receive the same treatment Black citizens do in America.

We are living in the dung heap of a racist society. There’s no escaping the stink. As writer and poet Scott Woods says:

The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.

I call myself racist because it is virtually impossible to have been raised white in America and not have drunk the racism.

I see it in myself. I see it in the assumptions I make.

When I find myself surprised that the main character in a book I’m reading or a radio announcer I’m seeing for the first time turns out to be Black.

That’s an easy one to admit. There are worse examples.

I did a Harvard Implicit Association Test. It showed I have a slight preference for European Americans over African Americans. I was dismayed but not surprised.

If I’m walking down the street in America at night, and I see a Black man coming towards me, this is my thought process:

  1. First, my automatic, lizard brain: Should I be afraid?
  2. Then, my frontal lobe: What a super racist thing to think. You’re such an asshole!
  3. Then, my white fragility: I’d better smile at this person so they know I’m totally not a racist.

I don’t share this because I’m proud of myself—I’m deeply ashamed.

And I don’t share this to put my shame at the center of this story. My shame is mine to own, not yours to soothe.

I share this because if, as white people, we cannot face our own complicity in this system of racism, we will never dismantle it.

I share this to invite other white people to stop working so hard to pretend we are untouched, that the stink of racism hasn’t somehow permeated our every pore.

If we don’t acknowledge the stink, we can’t do what’s necessary to get clean.

I was born and bred in America but have been living in Aotearoa New Zealand for more than 15 years. Right now, NZ can seem like a pretty smug country. We’ve done well so far in fighting the pandemic. Our Prime Minister has 2008-Obama-level rock-star status. Our racial problems don’t seem nearly as bad as what’s happening in the US.

And yet we have a racist society here, too.

Europeans arrived in Aotearoa NZ to find a flourishing society of around 100,000 Māori, living in every part of the country. They signed the founding document of Aotearoa NZ, te Tiriti o Waitangi—the Treaty of Waitangi—in 1840.

You can guess where this is going. The Treaty was repeatedly dishonored by the European colonizers; Māori language, culture, wellbeing and wealth all suffered.

Because Aotearoa NZ has been working to address claims of Treaty breaches for decades now, there’s a prevailing myth that colonization has ended. But this history leaves a legacy of intergenerational trauma, the effects of which are readily apparent today:

Māori represent just 15% of the total population, but 50% of the prison population.

56.8% of white New Zealanders own their own home. Just 28.2% of Māori do.

50% of the 230,000 Kiwi kids under the age of 15 who live below the poverty line are Māori and Pasifika. Māori are only 15% of the total population, Pasifika 7.4%.

When I moved here from America, one of the most striking things to me about this country was that the police didn’t carry guns.

But starting last October, they ran a six-month trial of armed police. In theory, they were supposed to respond to crimes that cause “significant risk.” In practice, of course, they just brought weapons into everyday policing.

Armed police were used:

  • 339 times for bail checks
  • 224 times for basic enquiries
  • 223 times for suspicious activity
  • 43 times for burglar alarms, and
  • 1406 times for simple traffic stops.

Think about that bail check number for a second. Think about the disproportionate representation of Māori in the prison system. Look at the weaponized, militarized American police system. How do you think Māori feel about arming the police?

You don’t have to guess. ActionStation surveyed 1,155 Māori and Pasifika on the topic:

  • 85% of those surveyed did not support the trial going ahead
  • 87% felt less safe knowing there were armed police in their community
  • 91% would not call the police for help if they knew they had guns on them.

The hashtag #ArmsDownNZ is trending. It should be. Arming the police would amplify a racist system, regardless of the individual intentions of the people pushing the policy.

It’s not enough to believe that most cops are good people. The disproportionately negative outcomes for Māori are not about individual people being racist. They are about a system of oppression going back 370 years. It is the system that needs to be dismantled.

To be clear: this is not about demonizing people for being white, as a New Zealand politician suggested last week.

This is about understanding that the playing field is entirely uneven—or that we might not even be on the same field.

In her powerful book So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo explains the difference between an individual act of racism and a racist system:

It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent. Without that white supremacist system, we’d just have a bunch of assholes yelling at each other on a pretty even playing field—and may the best yeller win. But there is no even playing field right now. Over four hundred years of systemic oppression have set large groups of racial minorities at a distinct power disadvantage. If I call a white person a cracker, the worst I can do is ruin their day. If a white person thinks I’m a n*****, the worst they can do is get me fired, arrested, or even killed in a system that thinks the same—and has the resources to act on it.

As Rabbi Sandra said, “You are either racist or anti-racist. Those are the two choices. The latter meaning you are working everyday either emotionally or physically to dismantle the racism that we all have been taught since day one in the United States.”

Which brings us full circle, to the understanding that the first place we have to dismantle the racism we have all been taught is within ourselves.

So I’m sorry. Not for being white—I don’t think anyone should apologize for the color of their skin. What I am sorry for is every way in which I have absorbed, embodied, been ignorant to, reflected, and amplified the racism around me. I pledge to do better.

I’m listening. To Ijeoma Oluo, who helped me think about racism as a system of oppression, not just as individual acts. To The Root’s Michael Harriot, whose epic Twitter threads have taught me more about American history than I ever learned in school. To John Carlos, whose gripping book The John Carlos Story helped me appreciate the courage it takes to stand peacefully in protest, the enormous price paid by those who do, and the fact—as Colin Kaepernick showed again, decades later—that there’s never a “right” way to confront systemic racism. To Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, walking in their parents’ enormous shoes. To Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Nikole Hannah Jones and Ava DuVernay and Bree Newsome Bass and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Patrick Thomsen and Laura O’Connell-Rapira, thank you for your films and your books and your articles and your tweets. Thank you for your work.

And I’m learning. To speak up about difficult things with my white friends. To “go there,” even though it’s difficult and awkward and I’m afraid of being “that person.” To use my privilege to try to dismantle the systems of racism we’re swimming in every day.

Fellow white people, I invite you to join me. It’ll be scary. It’ll be painful. It’ll be uncomfortable. We’ll say the wrong things, more than once.

But this is nothing compared to what Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color in America, in Aotearoa New Zealand, and around the world have experienced for centuries.

So we’ll listen. We’ll learn. And we’ll make progress.

It is, very literally, the least we can do.


Further reading and resources



Kaila Colbin

Founder/CEO Boma. Dual citizen USA/NZ. Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator. Just wants the world to be a better place.