“I’m not a Racist” — the White Lie Everybody Tells Themselves

Mark Olmsted
6 min readAug 20, 2017

My generation grew up associating “racism” with images of snarling dogs and Alabama governors, anti-busing protesters in 70s Boston, maybe an uncle from Kentucky who cut his daughter off for marrying a black man. If you’re younger, you probably think of racism in terms of voter suppression in the south, frothy birthers denouncing Obama, or thugs like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn lynching via firearm. If that’s the kind of racist you mean when you say you’re not a racist, you’re probably telling the truth.

Denying you’re that kind of racist is easy — you might as well be saying you love puppies. It took me a long time to see that just because I wasn’t that kind of racist didn’t mean I didn’t have to confront other kinds of racism in myself.

My father was an ultra-liberal of the Hubert Humphrey variety, and my mother came here from France as an adult with no baggage at all about race. I certainly never heard a negative word about black people growing up — rather the opposite. In fact, I remember being shocked by my Grandmother’s use of the word “colored.” Had I ever used the n-word — a thought that would never have even occurred to me — it would have been the only reason I can imagine my parents washing my mouth out with soap.

When we moved to suburban New York, my idealized view of black people was challenged. Our junior and high schools were in one building, and I found myself an extremely short and not very masculine 7th grader in a sea of 3,500 students. Some of the black kids came from pretty rough homes and cultivated a tough attitude. My parents always reframed the hostility. “Some kids just have a chip on their shoulder — you would too if you dealt with what they’ve had to deal with.”

Thank God there was the Drama Society, where creative types like me took refuge from the racial tensions outside. I became best friends with Eddie, who told me about praying every night as a child to wake up white and blond. He was the first person I had sex with, and he introduced me to gay life in Manhattan even before we’d graduated. I became incredibly close to other African-Americans in the cast, including a beautiful and funny girl who I later lived with in New York for several years as she struggled to make it in stand-up. She could get away with…

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Mark Olmsted

Author, "Ink from the Pen: A Prison Memoir" about my time behind bars. See GQ dot com “Curious Cons of the Man Who Wouldn’t Die” for story of how I got there.