Embodied racism

By Louis Hoffman

“Racism is located in your body.”

I first heard this stated when I was struggling with the realization that someone very important to me was having a difficult time accepting that I was engaged to a black woman. As I was talking about how painful it was for me that this person, who I knew was a good person with strong character, could not seem to get past their prejudice, it was gently pointed out to me that, “Racism is located in your body. If it was just in one’s mind, it would be easy to overcome and change. But it is not easy because racism is in our body.”

I was trying to change my friend’s mind through logical arguments, along with some attempts to motivate the change by pointing out that he was hurting the woman I loved through his prejudices. My approach was not effective. Although my fiancée (now my wife) also advised, “Just let him get to know me. Once he gets to know me, he’ll get over it,” it was not until this insight that racism is in the body set in that I began to accept that I could not change my friend through logical argument. As I let this go and trusted the relational process (primarily the relationship between him and my fiancée), he was able to gradually work through most of his prejudices.

Racists are not necessarily bad people

We often want to categorize racists as bad people. However, there are several problems with this. For one, to label people “good” or “bad” is an oversimplification. No one is all good or all bad. Second, I would affirm the common assertion that everyone has prejudices, and we all are racists to some degree. But these are more philosophical suppositions that could take us away from the point I would like to make.

Many intelligent people with strong character, good intentions, and solid morals struggle with racism and other forms of prejudice. If racism were simple enough that we could rationally disprove it, and through this process, end racism, the destructiveness of racism would be much more contained. If all good people, and all people who would like to have no racism, could easily overcome it, there would be much less racism in the world. The problem lies deeper; it is in our bodies.

Recommended read: “Marginalization: The pendulum swings both ways”

How does racism get in the body? One way that racism gets in our body is through experience. This can be role modeling as well as direct experience.

For instance, children are often exposed to racism. Regardless of whether this is through word or action, it can begin to become internalized through this modeling. Second, it can occur through a bad experience with individuals or small groups from different cultures, which then gets generalized to all people from the culture.

Many would argue that the roots of racism are encoded in our genes. It is not that there is a racist gene in our DNA, but rather a tendency to identify with one’s own group for safety reasons while being distrustful or suspicious of those identified as other.

Terror Management Theory, which is an existential social psychology based upon the work of Ernest Becker, maintains that particularly when we are reminded of our mortality we tend to identify more closely with our own group and often against other groups.

Empathy for racists

I consider myself to be a highly empathetic person. Yet, it is difficult for me to be empathetic with racists, in part because I generally don’t want to be empathetic with them. However, especially for those who would like to overcome their racism, empathy is a powerful tool for change. Empathy takes us beyond the surface level. One of the reasons that empathy is effective in bringing about change is precisely because it takes us beyond the rational; it takes us to the embodiment of the struggle.

Empathy is also effective at disarming defenses. When someone voices, “I know I am prejudiced toward black people, but I don’t want to be,” and are met with empathy, this allows them to explore this and begin a healing process. When they are met with condemnation and judgment, or pushing them to quickly overcome these struggles, they often put defenses up to emotionally protect themselves from the perceived attack. In protecting themselves, they also protect their racism, even if inadvertently so.

I am not suggesting that there is not a place for the rational or impassioned arguments in the struggle to overcome racism. Nor am I suggesting that we should be soft on people who do hurtful things—intentionally or unintentionally—because of their prejudices. Quite the contrary; I believe it is necessary at times to be confrontational and speak from our righteous indignation. Yet, while the confrontation may help someone recognize the need to change, rarely is it successful in helping implement the change. Confrontation must be followed by empathy, and it is the empathy that generally empowers the change. For advocates and activists, the shift from confrontation to empathy is difficult, but an important part of the art of promoting social change.


Racism is complex. This is a primary reason why racism continues to thrive even though it is no longer considered socially acceptable.

Because racism is complex, any attempt to counter or overcome racism requires something more than simple or superficial solutions; it even requires something more than sophisticated logical arguments. Like most forms of deeper change, overcoming racism requires relationships. The relationships required to overcome racism are, in many ways, risky relationships. It is hard to open oneself up to someone who demonstrates racism. Yet, without compassion, concern, and empathy for racists, we will never succeed in the goal of eradicating racism.

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