I have known Amalya for nineteen years, which is also her current age. Now a sophomore acting major at Ball State University, we have remained close through every phase of her life. What a gift it is to have the opportunity to post this profoundly self-aware young woman’s words. I am so proud of her.
I am racist
by Amalya Benhaim, Kenmore, Washington
“I am racist.”
This is what I said in my high school freshman Honors English class, prompted by a discussion on race sparked by our reading To Kill A Mockingbird.
After heads turned to glare at me, in shock, confusion, or curiosity, I was asked to expand.
“As much as I would like to think that I see everyone for who they are at their core, if I was walking down a street downtown at night and I saw a Black man not too far away, I would probably be more scared than if he were white. Not because I think Black men are predators or evil, but because that is what I’ve been fed—that’s what I learned to believe growing up, so that would be my unfortunate instinct.”
Holding back giggles, my peers wouldn’t look directly at anyone—especially not me. The tension was palpable. The room was silent until my teacher continued with the lesson.
Let me give you some context:
We were talking about race and prejudice in the grand scheme of things. But we weren’t talking about how, in our own classroom, made up of mostly white but certainly some people of color—mixed, Black, Asian (for Shoreline, we were pretty diverse)—we each had our own prejudices (covert or otherwise).
I felt like I needed to scream but I didn’t have a pillow, so I raised my hand instead.
I knew it would be uncomfortable because who wants to talk about that? What teenage newcomer, already an outsider, wants to admit to their potential “besties” that they are racist? You don’t want other people to think you’re racist—hell, you don’t want to see yourself as racist! But my need to say something outweighed my desire to be comfortable.
Through the rest of high school, a Black girl from my class reminded me, whenever our paths crossed, of “that time I said I was racist.” In fact, she reminded me of this moment many times.
“OMG Amalya, remember that time you said you were racist? So funny!” gave me a sense of something resembling embarrassment and discomfort. Looking back at it now, it strikes me how even though I had brought it up, we still couldn’t talk about it. It was still too uncomfortable, too taboo to really engage with.
It wasn’t the comment that made me uneasy, because the content was true. It was the social ramifications that made my stomach churn. I felt like the butt of a joke, a way for her friends to bond which made me even more so “the odd one out.” I was already the new kid, I didn’t grow up or go to school with these kids since I was five years old. When people you so desperately want to fit in with keep reminding you that you said this thing no one else wants to talk about, you’re the weird one.
Of all the things to mention years later, why was my comment, made on a cloudy Seattle day, one of the things that stuck with them and followed me all throughout high school?
My theory is that it stuck because it was something most everyone in that class inherently knew and felt but wouldn’t say or didn’t know how to articulate. They were faced with their own discomfort.
I think there’s something to be said about being the voice of what’s inside our heads. I think it is our job to tell the truth even if it can make us, or those around us, uncomfortable. Because the only way to create a new normal is to move past the discomfort. Once we are aware of our own racial biases and tendencies, it becomes our responsibility to do the work, have the conversations, and change it. It’s not easy—it takes guts, humility, and tenacity. And it must be done.
I am sharing this now because I did it again.
I am racist.
Today I was watching a video on race and heard someone say the word “ax” instead of “ask,” to which I said, “I hate it when people say ‘ax’ and not ‘ask.’ It’s so wrong—it’s like nails on a chalkboard.” I thought that people who spoke like that must just not have heard it right or were uneducated. To me, it was the equivalent of little kids saying “libary” instead of “library.”
After I talked about this with my mom, we did some research and found this video on African American Vernacular English and I was reminded of the fact that even a simple (ignorant) sentence like what I said, is inherently racist.
Now I know. And I don’t think of “ax” the same way anymore. Hearing “ax” still makes me squirm because I have been taught the word a certain way, but I no longer view it as “wrong.” I’m working on the first part; with time and attention, I’ll get there.
I share this because I am stepping into and through my own discomfort. And I want to share what I am learning with you so we can be uncomfortable and learn together.