Image from "I Guess It’s a Jungle in Here Too, Huh?" at Feministe
One might be inclined to read the following and despair.
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist.
Source: Ta-Nehisi Coates in the New York Times
But even though what Coates says is just as true about sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, age-ism, and just the whole shebang, dispair would be a mistake.
The trick is getting over the idea that you can ever completely overcome ground-in stuff.
To use a completely neutral example, a past-middle-age friend who's spoken fluent, unaccented, and vernacular English since coming to the U.S. as an elementary school kid said he occasionally still has dreams in his natal German. This doens't mean he wants to "go back" to Germany. It doens't mean he's "secretly" German. It really doens't mean he's fluent in German -- he came over in 1st or 2nd grade and hasn't really spoken it since! All it means is that even though he has little nostalgia and less practical interest in it there are still vestiges of something he was exposed to literally from birth, even though he learned to be -- and prefers to be -- an English speaker from a pretty early age.
So it's the same with racism, sexism, and pretty much everything else we were raised with growing up with the voices, expectations, and attitudes of everyone older than us. It's not even anything good or bad in itself. We can't exactly go back in time and say "Grandma, that story about the little boy and the tigers stereotypes East Asians out the wazoo."
Case in point: ever wonder whether the word "wazoo" has ethnic overtones? Possibly negative ones? Me neither. It was just in there in my natal catalog of euphemisms and it came out. (Answer, since I just looked it up: no, wazoo probably isn't derogatory, or not directly so. While there could be cognates in mideveal and/or Louisiana French and maybe in the Pama-Nyungan family pre-colonial Australian languages, it apparently just sounds funny.)
And while that one seems to be ok, and while I've consciously filtered out plenty of other distinctly ethnic, religious, sexist, abilist, and neuro-atypicalist euphemisms, other choices I still might have made, from the same stockpile of childhood "substitute for cuss words" are almost certainly of less savoury origins. But they're just there in the language and I haven't learned about them. Yet.t
So still not feeling better? I'm tellin' ya it's really not that bad to know how much you don't know. Because consider the alternative! Ignorance with confidence is just about the best place to stand while maximizing misery and chaos for others. As well as bringing heaps of generally well-deserved contempt upon one's self when one earnestly attempts to downplay, pooh-pooh, or otherwise reassure others that no, in fact, really, you're not one of those homophobic buggers.
This is why I think it's not just dumb or arrogant but rash to proclaim yourself a "good man," or a "nice guy."
It's not just that you're setting yourself up for ridicule. Or a fall. It's that if you really are well-intentioned, and if you really do want to do good work then you want to just pull up your big-boy pants
In Landmark Education (the erstwhile EST) they have, or maybe had, this declaration "Who I am is the possibility of [ABC,] and the act that I'm giving up is [XYZ.]" Say what you like about Landmark (and plenty of people do) there's something to be said about acknowledging that you can't ever be completely rid of old habits.
The other point, I think this one's more from the 12-Step philosophy, is that rather than rashly claiming you've purged yourself of all sexism, homophobia, misandry and misogyny, or even hey-you-mean-it's-not-obsolete anti-Irish prejudice,* the trick is to get out of denial, clean up what you can, and get back on the wagon. Sooner or later everybody falls off. The trick is having the fortitude to get back on.
More importantly integrity doesn't depend on never transgressing! I.e. being a "good person." Instead integrity depends on learning from your mistakes, apologizing, cleaning up the damage if you can, and living with it if you can't.
In fact, the time you spend defending the "good person" you are is identical to the time you spend out of integrity. And, perhaps worse for you and more embarrassing to your friends, its identical to the time you spend without dignity.
There's a saying among exterminators: there are two kinds of people in the world, those who know they have rats, and those who think they don't. Guess who invariably has the bigger collection of rats?
Well, there are two kinds of people in the world when it comes to being "good" too. Choose which one you'd rather be.
* Considering it's been nearly 100 years since the last big outbreak of anti-Irish political sentiment it's amazing how many anti-Irish sentiments remain in modern American culture -- see "paddy wagon" or Notre Dame's overtly belligerant, dimunitive caricature of a football mascot. Thus it's kind of pompous to imagine we can as quickly shed stereotypes reinforced both subtly and overtly as recently as last week.