Unintended Racism: How to Challenge Your Assumptions and Uncover the Root of Racism

challenge your racial assumptions

“You didn’t sound Black over the phone.”  He was bold in his assumption, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d experienced similar reactions before. I was slightly amused by his bewilderment. He looked let down, like a man set up on a blind date with an ugly girl.

As familiar as his reaction was, I was unsure of how to respond. True, our communication to that point had been via phone. He’d obviously made presumptions, which were proving to be untrue.

He loosely motioned toward a chair. I sat down. He began a soft interrogation.

“Where are you from? Where did you go to school?” Then he blurted out his real dilemma: Why do you sound white?

I should’ve been angry as he went on to explain he didn’t detect any of the colloquialisms he found common in Black people’s speech in our phone conversations. I wasn’t angry because it wasn’t my struggle. I know who I am.

What he meant was, “You’re not who you’re supposed to be.” But I was exactly who I was supposed to be. He couldn’t fit me within the boundaries of his narrow assumptions. My black skin coupled with my “white” voice hijacked his preconceived conclusion. I wasn’t what he’d expected.

Have you ever made an assumption about someone based on the color of their skin or culture and your assumption turned out to be false?

I have. We’re human. Many of us make assumptions based on race. Thankfully, I don’t have to respond according to what other people assume about me. I don’t find my worth in how other people see me or expect me to act based on my skin color.

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Sadly, we live in a world where some people don’t get past the color of my skin to find out who I really am. I can’t be summed up based on skin color alone. I’m not that simple. I’ve been molded by experiences, thoughts, and beliefs, which have shaped how I choose to interpret life.

He wanted to place me in a box. When we place people in boxes we miss out. We don’t experience the fullness of who they are because we’re closed off to seeing anything outside our assumptions. Drawing conclusions about people based on race or ethnicity is a form of racism. An ugly, inflammatory word that’s associated with hatred. No one wants to be called a racist. And I don’t believe most people are racist.

But racism covers a broad spectrum. We’ve narrowed it to the extreme. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the KKK or drive a car into a crowd of protestors to be guilty of thinking prejudicial thoughts, i.e. assumptions.

We can’t move get to the root of racism without challenging our assumptions.

Look at other people the way you want them to look at you. Ask the hard questions, even if you think it makes you look like a racist. Can it be any more prejudicial than asking me if:

  •  all five of my children biologically belong to my husband and me?
  •  I’ve tried one of the Black churches across town?
  • “colored” babies look white when they’re born?

Or admitting:

  • you couldn’t tell I was Black over the phone.
  • you grew up in the ghetto just like I did.
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Or telling me:

  • you sometimes forget I’m Black.
  • I’m not like other Black people.
  • my house looks just like a white person’s on the inside.
  • you’re not racist because one of your best friends in high school was Black.

Or assuming:

  • my kid qualifies for a need-based scholarship before collecting any financial information.

Does making one of these assumptions or asking one of these questions make you a racist? My hunch is, no, it doesn’t. I shouldn’t anymore assume someone is racist on the basis of a question combined with their skin color than others should assume how I should speak, worship, or decorate my house on the basis of my skin color.

My skin–like how I talk, where I go to church, and how I raise my kids–is just one aspect of who I am. It doesn’t determine my values or perspective. It doesn’t define me. I do. My being is rooted in something much deeper than the tint of my skin.

Asking questions and seeking answers do not make you a racist. What I hope is it makes us less likely to generalize and assume.

Racism isn’t unique to black and white. It’s been around since the beginning of time and is present in all cultures. When we reduce people to nothing more than skin color, it’s to our detriment. We miss out. We don’t allow ourselves to appreciate the richness which goes beyond skin.  I’m still amused when I meet someone, and I can sense they’re trying to find a place for me within the boundaries of their assumptions.

But I still smile and hope our encounter will force them to challenge their assumptions and look beyond skin and perhaps discover something more.

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Which of your preconceived notions about someone based on skin color or culture has been disproved?

Sheila Qualls is a former civilian journalist and editor for the U.S. Army’s award-winning newspaper, The Cannoneer. Sheila is now a stay-at-home mom, speaker and writer. Sheila writes from the experience of 30 years of marriage, five kids, homeschooling, 10 corporate moves, two dogs and a ferret. (May they rest in peace.) She inspires women by giving them a view into her world through a window of humor and transparency, one awkward moment at a time. She helps women navigate life’s emotional twists and turns so they can be the authentic women God called them to be. You can follow her on Facebook or on her blog at http://www.sheilaqualls.com.


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