The Theory of Ignorance: This white girl’s introduction to racism

rainbow blogBy: Hilary Bilbrey

Disclaimer: This is purely my own experience with and around racism…which is kind of the point. No two people have the same experiences, which is why we often misread, misinterpret and plain miss each other. I’ve been writing this in my head for years, so I hope it comes out in the way I intend…to give perspective and implore all of us to ask questions with a sincere heart and really listen to the answers…and be willing to give the answers with an open heart. Peace.

The first time I remember becoming aware of racism, I was in 2nd grade.  I don’t remember all the details, but I have a vivid recollection of my friend, who happened to be black, and me becoming completely fascinated by one another’s hair.  Mine was stick straight.  His was delightfully curly.  We decided to experiment by dumping water on each other’s hair to see what would happen to our hair when wet.  I poured my Dixie cup on him first…he never got the chance to dump water on me.  Next thing I knew, I was in the principal’s office and being questioned over my “obvious” racism.  I don’t remember what the outcome was, but I remember that was the first moment that I realized that apparently there was something wrong with being curious. If I wanted to avoid conflict and getting in trouble, maybe I needed to reconsider being friends with people different than I.

Fast forward to college and sitting in a large conference room with other resident assistants and receiving diversity training.  Our speaker was likely in her sixties and African American…this would have been early 90’s, so she was old enough to remember the civil rights movement.  She kept referencing “people of color.” A friend of mine asked a question about “colored people.” Now, he was simply making an adjective out of the word color and trying to be sensitive to the verbiage of the speaker.  She came unglued.  She called on other African Americans to berate the young white man for his racism in using the terminology “colored people’ which was so “obviously” racist.  I could feel the heat rise in my face, as I remember the injustice of my second grade curiosity.  Tentatively, I raised my hand. “Excuse me.  Aren’t you here to educate us and help us with issues of diversity?” The speaker agreed emphatically that she was.  “Do you know this man’s intent? I believe he was taking your term “people of color” as an inclusive term…red, yellow, brown, black, etc., and using it as an adjective to mean the exact thing you were saying.  I don’t think he had any intention of calling you…an African American…colored.  How do you expect us to listen and learn if we can’t ask honest questions without being humiliated?” The speaker was quiet.  She turned and asked the man if indeed I was right.  He nodded, swallowing hard.  She apologized, explained what an emotionally charged word “colored” was for her and then took the time to educate us on her experiences with that word.  It was productive discourse.  This young man didn’t live in the 60’s.  His intentions were very good.  Lack of experience does not equate to racism. No human can learn effectively if we are put on the defensive…it will be fight or flight.  Avoid conflict, which often seems to translate to avoiding diversity, or fight back and double down on our mistake. 

Perhaps my greatest lesson thus far in racism and diversity came in 1995.  It was during the O.J. Simpson trial.  I was sitting in the commons at UWEC with a friend who was black…not African American…black.  She had corrected me once and explained that she could not trace her heritage and did not know where her ancestors were from…not all black people living in America are African American.  It took me a second…how had I missed that? She asked me my opinion on the trial.  I froze.  Anyone who was around then remembers how racially charged the trial was.  I felt that O.J. was guilty, but mostly because of the infamous white Bronco chase with the police. I was afraid if I told he she would think I was racist, but I didn’t want to lie either.  I took a breath and told her just that, bracing for the rage about to follow. She burst out laughing.  When I asked her why, she said I looked so terrified that she was afraid I was going to throw up right there. I told her she wasn’t far off, but started laughing too. We ended up having the most amazing conversation. We both let down our guards completely and asked each other questions without fear and answered each other without blame. In the end, we developed an interpersonal communication theory together called “Ignorance Theory” and even presented it in class. The crux of the theory is so simple.

I don’t know what it is to be black, a man, gay, Mexican…I could keep going, you get the point. I am going to screw up and say the wrong thing, even though I have a truly loving heart, just because I don’t know. It’s not my experience. I hear people fighting against politically correct…I think perhaps pride is getting in the way. These people are forgetting that sometimes they really don’t know and they need to be educated and that is okay. It is not a weakness to not know. It is a weakness to not care to learn. On the flip side, we need to learn to be a little less offended, in my opinion. Can we just assume that many people don’t know, don’t understand, have not experienced differences? What would it hurt to respond to someone’s ignorance with compassionate teaching instead of anger? I turn off and stop listening when someone is angry with me. I am a flight person with conflict; I cannot tell a lie. Is there any chance we can check our pride at the door, admit that we need to get to know each other better with compassion and love? I’ll be waiting here, with an open heart, when you’re ready.


  1. Thank You for helping Us to continue on a path to Unity!

  2. Aamir Chaudhry says:

    Excellent piece Hilary. Thanks for sharing. Even though we have improved our understanding of each other but at times it seems we are becoming less tolerant (individual as well as global level). We have started stereotyping more than ever. We witness a bad experience with one person/individual from any race and next moment we are giving our expert opinion on that race.
    But happy to see your post. This is the best way to address it, by talking openly about it and sharing our good and bad experiences.

    • Thank you, Aamir. I agree. It seems, I think fueled by media and social media, many have become “experts” without having the legitimate experience to back up their opinions. I believe there is a Chinese proverb that goes something like this, “The wise man knows he knows nothing, the fool thinks he knows all.” I truly appreciate you.

  3. Suzanne Claytor says:

    Hi. I saw this posted on FB by Chris and wanted to share one of my first experiences with racism with an awkward twist. It’s a story I’ll never forget. I moved from Oklahoma to a very small town in North Carolina in 7th grade. When I was living in OK, I went to a very progressive school and had not been touch by racism in the least that I can remember. When I moved to NC, my school was quite backwards from what I was used to. My first friend was a little girl named Shay Shay. She happened to be black. We loved each other very much. She was the first person to be nice to me in that school. I called her on the phone one day and told her I wanted to come over and visit. She told me that white kids don’t come to her neighbor. I didn’t get it so I asked her to come to my house after school the next day. She had to tell me that that just didn’t happen in this town. I cried and cried to my mother not understanding at all. My mother had to sit down with me and explain racism. Shay Shay and I continued to be wonderful friends, but it alway hurt my heart that things couldn’t be the same with her as they ended up being with my other friends. I’m glad these things have changed, but there is still a lot of change that needs to happen. Thank you for your article.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It really is heartbreaking…and I think location still matters. From stories through friends, there are still places like this. Then I look at my kids and their friends, and they even joke about race. My oldest’s friends will call themselves my “brown son” or “Indian son” …then they laugh and laugh. They recognize the difference and the love in one phrase.

  4. Amen!!! It’s even more difficult when you have a nation exposed to mainstream urban rap music with totally disgusting inappropriate slang references to a generation of youth who add these song lyrics to their “cultural experience” with so many mixed messages! Ugh!

    • I do think what you surround yourself with can influence your mind and heart. My question is which came first in this instance? The anger or the music? I think the music is an expression of the anger, but that’s a discussion for another day. Really, the reason for the blog is not to point fingers or blame, but rather to invite people to have open hearts and ask questions.

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