Racism and anti-semitism isn't something we're born with. It's the product of influences around us. The people who teach us to think in terms of "us" and "them." Media stereotypes that infuse us with prejudice. Insecurities that tempt us to put others down to feel better about ourselves.
Below are stories told by previously racist and anti-semitic people who have come out the other side and realized how horrible their viewpoint was.
They provide some insight into why people are actually swept into hate in the first place, and how it can be unlearned.
Thank you to all the people who shared their story. Source found at the bottom of this article.
1. Some backstory; I was in a hardcore racist organization from 15 to 20 years old. They recruited me off the school grounds, where I was vulnerable and easily persuadable. I had been in brawl with a few Arab immigrants and felt strong resentment against them and the organization really sounded like they made a difference, like they could stop "them" and others who would "destroy" the country ...this is truly what I thought.
I shaved my head and started to wear the clothes. We used to vandalize immigrant "hotels" (places they live just when they came to the country) and stores. We would regularly get into large fights with immigrant and communist/socialist groups.
I really truly hated those people. Everyday I did something to make their life difficult. Everyday something related to this ongoing"fight" happened. Such was life in the organization. I was content with the hate.
But then there was a moment where that all changed.
I was sitting on the bus on my way home one day. I was listening to some music in my headphones. It was a cloudless autumn day and everything was a healthy yellow and orange color and blue sky. At a stop an African American man and a young boy, maybe 5-6 years, got on. The man was tall and had bad clothes, he looked like he did not have much. They sat in front of me. I immediately became annoyed and started to think about how I hated them, immigrants coming to my country, I thought. He is poor and I pay taxes so he can get welfare. I thought about how his son is going to become a lousy bum and abuse white women. I started to get mad and decided to beat the man up, I was going to follow him when he got off the bus.
I saw him press the button and got ready at the next stop, and just before we stopped I was about to get up and the man turned to his son and said something in a heavy accent that I will never forget in my life.
"I love you my son, be good."
He then gave him a big, hard hug and the boy got off the bus alone. He waved good bye and sat back down, with his hands on his face. I just stared out the window where his son had been standing. My world view came crashing. He was just a father who wanted his son to be good, he loved him just like my father loved me. For some reason this changed everything for me. I know this is a very small thing but I started to think about how he wanted a better life for his son. He was a man that had changed everything for his family.
I sat on that bus for hours, it kept going around. I thought about how wrong it was to do the things I had done. I left that city the next day and started over. I am much happier now. I don't feel the hate in my heart every day anymore.
2. This story is difficult to share. I am telling it at the request of my son.
I was raised as a racist. We lived in Southern California near a lot of racial minorities. My father was a union leader and I think his hatred of minorities came from his job, because the union was mostly white guys and they saw the minorities as trying to take their jobs. Whenever we would drive around and see them in the street, my dad would always point them out and talk rudely about them.
I grew up and had kids of my own. I was doing the same thing to them without realizing it. One day I came home and found my 14 year old daughter messing around with another kid who was Black. I threw him out of my house and beat him in my driveway.
The cops were called and I went to prison for assault. (Continued)
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In prison, I saw how ethnically divided everything was, but my counsellor was the one who basically shook me out of it. She helped me realize that continuing this hatred would really only hurt my own life.
I tried to avoid the racial groups in my prison. I stayed on my own and earned my GED. In my classes I met a lot of minorities who had also never graduated high school, like myself.
You know, I don't think there was really a single moment. It took a while for the subject to come up in my sessions, and I remember my counsellor asking me if I actually knew anyone of a different race, and I really didn't. I had always avoided them my whole life. So that was the start of my mind changing.
I listened to my counsellor and got to know them and realized what a hard life they had had. Before, I thought that they were just lazy and sold drugs for easy money. We actually went through a lot of the same struggles in our education.
When I got out, I started a construction company. I make an effort to hire both former cons and also minorities. I am trying to make up for the kind of things I have done in the past.
3. I was a huge racist neo-nazi, and I was visiting the holocaust museum because, as I thought at the time, I wanted to see a "shrine" to how the "great and powerful" Aryans had killed Jewish people. Goodness I was such an idiot. I actually thought it would be fun. Then, I saw a little girl's dirty shoes from one of the gas chambers and I totally lost it. Something inside me snapped.
It just took that one moment for me to realize how stupid I was being.
Today, I couldn't be happier. I also happen to be married to an African-American woman and she is the love of my life.
4. I was a skinhead since I was a kid..about 13. We ran in a gang and listened to both racial music and also non racial music. We were a bit mouthy etc about race, but the place we grew up in was totally white. There was one Chinese lass in our whole school of about 1,200 people. It didn't take me too long to realize that the "they took our jobs" talk was a load of crap, as there were no ethnic people in our town and no jobs. So I did grew out the explicit racist thing pretty quickly. Still, I harboured some deep-seeded beliefs about race, and usually thought of non-white people as "the others."
It was only really when I went to university that I actually encountered different races. I got to work beside Black and Asian guys, played football with Africans and Greeks and generally had a great time and met great people who I still keep in contact with. At that point, even though I didn't consider myself outwardly racist, I couldn't imagine me having Black friends, or going on holiday with a group that included several Muslims, which I did do a couple of years back.
There was a moment, for me, that turned everything around. (Continued)
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I went to live in another city, and was just myself..talk to anyone. One night I got a cab. The driver was a Muslim in full Pakistani cultural gear. I thought, people are people and have the right to do or dress how they want, but I don't think we are going to have a lot to talk about, not much common ground. I gave him my address and sat back to chill out.
Guy turns round, you a Scot (Scottish)? I said yeah mate. Then he starts chatting about when he first came to England in the 60s before the majority of Pakistanis, he used to get picked on at school. The other guys who were picked on were Scots and Irish. So they formed a gang of the eight of them. From that day they could go watch football, go out at night, and generally stick up for each other. He said, that was a long time ago, and I still get a shiver when I hear Scots or Irish accents. Now he teaches kids at the mosque not to dislike white Christians, and the best ways to mix and interact. We sat for 20 minutes when we arrived at my house and just shot the breeze.
I think that's when the last bit of bigotry left me.
5. I moved to London when I was 6, from Poland. Back in Poland everyone in my community was racist to a degree, so I never really thought about it. I was raised with the (false!) knowledge that Muslims were the cancer of the Earth, Black people were just the poor, scum of society, and this was just accepted as a truth. Racism and Xenophobia in Eastern Europe is pretty bad.
Anyway, I moved when I was about 6, maybe 7, to a housing estate in South London, and what I saw disgusted me at the time. The amount of minorities around where I lived was huge. I remember just starting secondary school (age 11) and quickly falling into a group of friends who were primarily European, all of which shared my uneducated views. Like I said, I was poor and so were they, and so we put the blame onto anyone we could. It's just how it was. For the next couple years I was constantly in trouble for fighting and making trouble with other kids, and they were almost always Black. I was a real jerk at that age. At 15 one of my friends was stabbed by a gang member, and I just felt angry and let down, blaming other minorities more than ever.
When I got a bit older, and I was studying at college (not university, the two years before university is called college or sixth form in the UK) there were no other Eastern European people in my class. I was one of 3 white people, the other two being English, the rest being Black or Muslim. I felt isolated, until I was forced to sit next to a kid called Tristan. (Continued)
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He was involved in gangs, selling drugs ect, and for the first week I didn't talk to him at all, but I realized that actually, despite what I saw in him when I first met him, he seemed like a nice guy, so I started talking to him a bit, and I realized that all the things I'd been through getting caught up in violence, drugs and everything else that came with being a young poor impressionable Polish immigrant, I could relate to him. Anyway, he became one of my best friends, and my 18th birthday was coming up so I told him he should come along to it (parents got some money together and hired out the top room of a pub near where I live). Well, you can imagine what happened. My attitudes had changed a bit so I didn't think much of it at the time, but my old friends started getting violent towards him and his girlfriend who he'd brought. I saw all those people from a different light, and I haven't spoken to them since.
I'm in my second year at university, and I'm still trying to kill any pre-judgement of people that hangs over from how I used to think. If anything, the people I prejudge most are Eastern European.
6. I never ran with a group of racists, but I harboured some really racist views for a long time, listened to RAC (basically Nazi punk rock) a lot, and frequented the Stormfront (White Nationalist Community) boards.
I realized eventually that being filled with hate all the time, was having a really negative impact on my life. at the same time that this thought crept into my head, I started working in the oil patch in Northern Canada. I ran into a lot of people who were extremely racist, who said things that even I didn't agree with, and even met some guys who identified themselves as neo nazis.
It struck me that there was one thing in common for each of these guys.
One of the common things these guys shared, is that they were extremely uneducated and, often, of little intelligence. Maybe someone knows some smart racists, I never have actually met one.
It got me thinking, about my future, about the kind of people I wanted to be around, about the people who I wouldn't have in my life if they knew I had become a full on racist, and about having a bunch of idiots as my sole peer group.
I really didn't want that, so I worked hard on changing. I threw out my Bully Boys c.ds, I went back to school, in a course with many different cultural groups, and realized that most of the time, these people that I hated were a lot more like me then they were different from me.
And towards the end of my course, I stopped at a car accident, where a car full of middle eastern people had flipped off a road. They had kids and the mom inside, and they were in pretty bad shape. (Continued)
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When I looked at them, and saw their eyes, and the fear and pain, I knew, that we are all people. I could have never left those people to die, I could have never hoped for a different outcome for those people than for people of my own skin color (this didn't happen right away, it took a few weeks from the accident). I still have racist thoughts pop into my head (driving in Vancouver can do that), but I catch them, and realize it is just a reactionary response, built up from years of habitual thinking, and they don't usually last all that long.
I work as an EMT now, and it has been the best thing for me. It is a constant reminder that we all have the same fears and the same response to emotional and physical pain. And it has worked, I no longer think of myself as racist there are things I'm still ignorant about, but I'm working on it. Nobody's perfect. It's all about the ability to step back and realize where that thought is coming from. It requires being willing to self-critique which is never an easy thing.
That family in the car ended up being o.k, the paramedics and fire crew arrived on scene and extricated them, they were hurt but no one died, and I got inspired to make my own positive mark on the world, and picked my career.
7. While I was not a KKK member, I used to support David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK who ran for Louisiana governor, because of his racist views. I had preconceived ideas about racial minorities, and often told people that I hated how Black people would walk in the middle of the road, and were quick to anger. Mostly, it just felt good to look down on someone else.
I later came out as gay but remained a racist. I changed my mind when I moved from Louisiana to California and took gender/race/sexuality study classes. Wow! That really turned things around for me. I realized I was racist because I didn't understand other cultures and motivations of minority groups. My new perspective was further enforced when I, too, became angry at stuff that happens to minorities and felt the need to act out.
Also, as a side note, I also read that the whole "walking in the middle of the road" thing for people in low-income neighborhoods is because humans are territorial, and people who live in the projects don't have true sense of ownership. So public things become their territory. Pretty interesting.
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8. In my Primary school years I was nearly suspended due to racist comments towards a person of color in my class. I was a brat (to put it mildly) as a kid. Probably down to coming from a rich family that became a broken, welfare needing home in the matter of months. Acting out, you know.
As I got older I got drawn into the whole racist / anti-Semitic view because of my grandparents. Farm folk from a village in Kent, England with about 15 inhabitants. Nice people seriously, they just hated Jewish people, and anyone from a differing racial or ethnic background. Ironically my Grandfather was born in Guernsey, the Channel Islands so wasn't actually English.
The Neo-Nazi idea was one I could relate to. I used to walk around with military boots and trousers, biker jacket and bandanna. I'd listen to really abusive racial music, have a general disgust for the 'cancer' on this Earth as I used to see it as. I admired how the Nazis had become such a powerful government through racist policies. This somewhat supported my ideals.
Where I lived at that time was surrounded by Indian students, studying for medicine at University. I used to have a go at the groups of them, push them around. Some would cross the road to avoid me. Like a group of 10 avoiding just me. I was 6 foot and 260lbs back then.
Now this is the twist, throughout the neo-nazi esque years I had been into watching a lot of gay porn secretly. But I was homophobic as all heck. When I eventually worked out I was being a dick because I was projecting the hatred of myself outwards. I changed. I came out to my parents and grandparents who all supported me surprisingly, just as long as I didn't flaunt it.
Now for the grand ending: I'm engaged to a half Irish Half Algerian, gorgeous man who has been with me for the most wonderful three years of my life.