British Columbia·Point of View

I was raised in a racist home — and it's been a long journey to unlearn those attitudes

Regardless of the changes in his thinking over the years, Dale Wallace worries he might backslide into racist ideas.

I'm a 63-year-old man whose generation needs to do better

'When I was young I was — without doubt — a racist,' writes Dale Wallace. 'But I like to think I was open-minded enough to eventually realize my horrible flaw and, even now, I am learning to be better.' (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Dale Wallace, who lives in Delta, B.C.  For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Will I always be a racist?

I am a 63-year-old white man and because I am white and a man, I have always lived a privileged life. Few people have questioned my thoughts or beliefs, and sometimes my status has blinded me from seeing my true self. I could hide and ignore my worst wrongs. 

When I was young I was — without doubt — a racist. I was raised in a family that considered white as the "best" race and all other colours and ethnicities were inferior. Even though I was not unaware of it, racism became part of my identity.

I like to think I was open-minded enough to eventually realize my horrible flaw and, even now, I am learning to be better.

Yet I'm sometimes nagged with the thought: Is racism something I will ever truly put behind me? 

My parents taught me to be racist.

My father was the manager of a cattle ranch and needed to hire someone to help. There were no white men available at the time, so he hired an Indigenous man. He told me that the man might not last as an employee because "all Indians are drunks."

Sadly, after the man received his first paycheque, he left for several days and went on what my father called a "bender." My father fired him when he returned. And in my mind, right then, a stereotype of Indigenous people was formed.

I work as a registered psychiatric nurse in a community mental health clinic in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Early in my career, my racism affected how I regarded some of my clients. For a long time I believed my father's stereotype of Indigenous people as "drunks." I thought Eastern Europeans could never recover from mental illness because they were too stubborn to gain insight.

The more I met people of different skin colours and ethnicities, the more I questioned my racist beliefs. I cannot remember an exact time I changed my way of thinking, as it was a gradual process.

However, even though I knew better, I would often tell racist jokes. Even now, I sometimes fail to confront a person if they tell one, especially if that person is in a position of authority. It is a personal failing on my part and part of my journey is to acquire the courage to confront others. 

But I am lucky to be married to an extremely insightful person and, because of my wife's honest support and love, I have gained the wherewithal to break the chain of my racist behaviour.

Fortunately, my own children did not become racist. In fact, I have learned from my children. My eldest daughter has corrected my vocabulary. For example, no longer calling Indigenous Peoples "Indians." My youngest daughter has pointed out what's wrong with my jokes about Asian people and driving.

Still, regardless of the changes I have made, I think about whether I could backslide. I wonder if I was in a bad situation, or was again surrounded by racist people, or perhaps experienced a lot of stress, would I revert to a racist thought? I never want to return to that shameful place again, and I must always move forward and be a better person.

In some ways, I am like an alcoholic who has stopped drinking, but must always be on guard against drinking again. I will always have my memories of who I was and how I acted, and I cannot change the fact I was racist. Yet I cannot wallow in my past but, instead, learn from it.

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Dale Wallace works as a registered psychiatric nurse in a community clinic in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. He is married with two adult children and one grandchild.