How do I get over the shame of my bigoted teenage past?
April 13, 2011 8:05 AM   Subscribe

How do I get over guilt and shame of sharing very prejudiced things online as a teenager?

About 9 years ago when I was a teenager I had a livejournal. I said some terrible bigoted and ignorant things about certain groups of people. I don't remember the extent of what I said, but I know it had to do with "reverse racism" which I now firmly believe and understand as completely false and racist concept designed by white people who are threatened by an imaginary loss of privilege. And more.

I don't want to self-justify or excuse what I did, because what I said was horrible and unacceptable. However, looking back I see a variety of factors that lead me to lash out online. Ignorance being at the top of this list. But also mental health & medication issues (caused a lot of "acting out" in other ways too), and having a gullible personality with a very controlling close friend who first introduced me to the concept of "reverse racism". As soon as the friendship with that person ended, my thinking changed and the bigoted comments stopped.

I didn't understand how these systems worked, I didn't understand that I had privilege. I was very ignorant. I did eventually change my beliefs through studying sociopolitical critical theory and familiarizing myself with anti-oppressive organizing groups/friends in university. I changed how I thought about and saw the world.

However, I did have one slip up about three years ago. I briefly dated someone (an educated person with mostly progressive views) whom I had a lot of issues of asserting myself and speaking my mind in their presence. I know they knew someone from my past who read my racist LJ; the social group I participate within is a bit incestuous. They set me up with a racist comment completely out of the blue, one that I remember not understanding because I knew it was uncharacteristic and incongruent with their intelligence. I thought it was a really terrible joke, but with which I responded with an incoherent racist comment. Immediately afterward I felt ashamed and manipulated, but mostly really dumbfounded that I didn't have the ability to disagree or speak my mind. Looking back, it looks as if it was a thinly veiled "test", and now I'm left with some big cognitive dissonance. It appalls me that I essentially repeated what I did as a teen when I knew better.

How do I get over the shame I have from my past? Also, are there any tips or resources on how to unlearn passivity/prejudice/mind control? Is that what is present in my case?

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It would be shameful if you still felt that way, but the fact that you look back on this stuff and cringe is a GOOD THING. It means you've grown.

Maybe imagine you're looking at someone else- like pretend that you are observing a friend of yours. You know they used to have some pretty horrible opinions, but now they've grown into a tolerant and accepting person. Do you hate them because of what they used to think, or are you proud of them for the positive changes they've made?

I think we all go through this, to some degree. Don't worry about it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:14 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

You were a teenager. You said and wrote stupid things. They may have been worse than your average, run-of-the-mill teenager idiot episodes, but they weren't the worst out there.

The internet brings out a lot of ugliness. Just move on, and remind yourself that who you were 9 years ago has no bearing on who you are now.

If you feel like you have to do something to overcome your guilt, volunteer with a non-profit focused on promoting education and curbing hatred (like the Anti-Defamation League, etc).
posted by litnerd at 8:16 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can't you delete your LiveJournal?

Beyond that, I think the best way to get over shame for past actions is to resolve to do the opposite in the future. So, post comments on the internet about the evils of white privilege and the illusory nature of reverse racism. (You've clearly found a receptive forum for doing so!)

I hasten to add that I'm not taking a stand on the merits of these racial issues, since I don't know enough about the specific issues that were discussed to know if I would agree with the present you or the past you or some other position. Of course, my opinion isn't relevant to your question anyway. The best you can do is express and stay true to your current views, in the present and future.

Finally, I found this old AskMetafilter comment by jimmyjimjim to be very insightful and inspiring about the need to always move into the future and not get hung up on the follies of our past.
posted by John Cohen at 8:17 AM on April 13, 2011

You get over it by realizing that you were just a stupid teen back then, just like almost everyone else was when they were a teenager.

I've done so many stupid things when I was younger that I cannot believe that I was once that person.

We live and we learn. And then we continue with our (hopefully enlightened) lives..
posted by eas98 at 8:17 AM on April 13, 2011

Each day is a new day. Let the past be the past and don't stop fighting to be the person you want to be.
posted by contemplace at 8:19 AM on April 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

I would try to focus on the progress you have made and growth you have experienced. I think we all have things in our past that make us cringe, but I think it would speak far worse of a person if they never grew and learned. Working to continue to become the person you want to be is a great way to counter your previous statements and actions, and part of that process can be to cut your former self some slack. Progress is good! Pat yourself on the back, but don't rest on your laurels.

As for the "test" you describe, that sounds like it could be an issue with thinking clearly under relational pressure. I've been working on something similar in therapy, and there are probably non-therapeutic resources to help with recognizing and responding to that kind of thing, though I don't know them off the top of my head.
posted by rosa at 8:20 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

They set me up with a racist comment completely out of the blue, one that I remember not understanding because I knew it was uncharacteristic and incongruent with their intelligence. I thought it was a really terrible joke, but with which I responded with an incoherent racist comment. Immediately afterward I felt ashamed and manipulated, but mostly really dumbfounded that I didn't have the ability to disagree or speak my mind. Looking back, it looks as if it was a thinly veiled "test", and now I'm left with some big cognitive dissonance.

I doubt that they were "testing" you in this way. I don't think normal people say offensive things in order to check whether or not their friends will correctly call them out on it. You should definitely look at the reasons why you would pretend to agree when someone makes a racist comment, but overall I think you are overthinking this. Just try to be a good person in your life and don't focus too much on small mistakes that don't actually hurt anyone.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:22 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're easily influenced by what those around you think. The important thing is not to hold the correct views; it's to hold whatever views you hold for good reasons. That goes for everyone. The thing is, teenagers aren't the best at evaluating reasons or standing against peer pressure. Neither are adults, frankly, and it sounds like something you still struggle with. That's fair enough. We all have things about ourselves we need to work on. But if you're happy with who are today, and if you believe who are today can't be separated from the experiences you've had in your past, then it's easier to accept your past for what it is: a necessary part of the process of becoming who you are.
posted by smorange at 8:24 AM on April 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

The world would be bad ass if everyone that's ever had a hateful blog could look back on it with this sort of clarity. I think you are doing good to just practice critical thinking so you don't rush to judgement in the future.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 8:26 AM on April 13, 2011

Delete your live journal. And maybe consider finding some better friends? As for atonement of guilt, I'd recommend some sort of volunteering that would put you in contact with those communities and people of which you were/are ignorant. It's a lot harder to be pressured into racism when there's faces behind the ideas.
posted by eggyolk at 8:26 AM on April 13, 2011

Why don't you try some of that anti-oppressive organizing? Be really honest with yourself (and with others, as it comes up) about your background, talk to those friends you have who are engaged in organizing, and figure out how to get connected to that community. Your experience of dramatically changing the way you think gives you a really useful viewpoint for reaching out to people who aren't quite there yet; you can probably connect with them in accessible ways that might not come as easily to people who haven't had that sea change in worldview. Not only will organizing help others and make you feel better about your past missteps, it will help you continue your development as an anti-oppressive advocate and prevent "slip-ups" like the one you mentioned. No one comes to organizing with perfect knowledge and infallible understanding of privilege, and your past can be a valuable tool for effecting change in the future.
posted by verbyournouns at 8:32 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Own up to it. Accept that the person you once were as a child said, and perhaps believed, horrible things. Hell, I thought I was a Republican in high school and actually voted for George W. Bush's first term in my early 20s. A decade later, I don't even recognize that person I used to be.

If someone asks me about it now, I am a little embarrassed, sure, but it's freeing to own up to it. To admit that I can now fully understand what was wrong about me and to be able to enjoy the growth and progress I've made.

Understand that you were open-minded enough to change. That's hard to do in this world...and it's something to be proud of. We're supposed to grow and learn from our mistakes. So be thankful you did...and keep moving forward.
posted by inturnaround at 8:32 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

This question is kind of bizarre. Debates over affirmative action and "reverse racism" are fairly mainstream, I'd argue, and people of good will can hold "incorrect" views (depending on your perspective) without being bigoted.

Since this question is posted anonymously, there's no reason to be vague on specifics. It seems, to me at least, like an indirect argument that people who decry "reverse racism" are themselves dangerous bigots.

Clearly, if this LiveJournal went beyond Ward Connerly-style rhetoric into Stormfront territory, some healing and reflection would be in order (and I'll leave it to other commenters to offer advice).

But, if this is merely a case of someone on an ideological journey from right to left, I'd suggest that there is little cause for shame. Rather, one should consider the transformation as part of one's unique education in the world, and look for lessons and insights...

Finally, embrace the concept of intellectual humility. You may one day begin to question your "firm belief" that reverse racism is a "completely false and racist concept designed by white people." Perhaps not... but maybe you could try to be a little more curious, and a little less judgmental as to people's motives...
posted by BobbyVan at 8:42 AM on April 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

If you can at all bear it, I hope you'll leave your previous writings around in some form. Maybe you could add a discussion of h ow you changed your mind.

There's a book called The Best of Enemies which describes how a man's views on race changed. He was a ranking member of the KKK, and later became a fighter for civil rights. This is to me one of the most inspiring, encouraging books I've read because it tells a true story about how a seemingly intransigent set of prejudices was overcome.

Too often, the views of people who don't agree with us seem immutable and impossible; many people take the attitude that the only way to make the world a better place is to suppress those we don't agree with, or to wait for them to age out.

Stories like his, and yours, can tell us how to overcome prejudice while still including everyone.

I have a huge amount of respect for people who let in new information and are able to grow despite limiting experiences in their childhoods. I'd love to talk to someone like you. You have a lot to be proud of.
posted by amtho at 8:44 AM on April 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

It's very nice to know that people can change! Gives me hope.

I think the most valuable thing you can do with your past is to tell your story. It is an extremely valuable story to tell. In fact, it might even be worth showing (racist white) people your livejournal, if it's still around, and to take them through your learning process, if they're willing to listen to it. Every time you tell your story, you will be exposing someone to ideas about race/racism, privilege, power, humility, social and personal change, and responsibility.

Also understand that guilt is a selfish phase that perhaps you have to go through for a little while. But don't let that be the reason you want to change. Guilt should not be guiding you.
posted by DJ Broken Record at 8:46 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

No one cares what you blogged as a teenager the way you seem to think they do. I don't mean that your opinions, past or present, don't matter, but rather: anyone who would try to hold that kind of thing against you is out to get you for reasons other than your former prejudiced opinions. People might be impressed that you changed your mind, or might cringe on your behalf over those old posts, or might confront you if they thought you still held those beliefs, but the only reason anyone would try to make you feel bad or guilty over that stuff would be if the person was just looking for ways to attack you.

When I read your intro, I thought you were going to say you were involved with online white supremacy groups and blogged about your hatred of inferior races. It sounds like what really happened was you got on your LiveJournal and repeated ignorant politically conservative talking points about white people becoming disadvantaged as a result of progressive social policies. You weren't a leader of the White Power movement. You were a kid who bought into some ignorant and prejudiced political views. It's embarrassing content, for sure, and it's really good that you've changed your beliefs, but cut yourself some slack. Teenagers are often gullible (I know I was), and talking points can sound really persuasive. You don't need to feel good about your former beliefs, but you don't need to beat yourself up this way.

You've grown up, rejected the bigoted views you used to hold, and are now a person who values and respects other people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or class, right? So delete the blog, if you haven't already. Find a way to live your current convictions authentically--whether that means actively volunteering or organizing for anti-racist causes, or simply means speaking up when a friend or acquaintance says something racist. And ditch anyone who would try to make you feel bad about beliefs you outgrew years ago: that kind of person is not your friend.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:01 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Destroy all evidence, internally shrug it off as youthful stupidity, and try not to repeat the mistake in future.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:02 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I think there's a lot to be gained by doing a public post in the same forum and saying "I used to believe this. Now I don't. Here's what changed my mind."
posted by KathrynT at 9:10 AM on April 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Why not update the older posts with your new views? Otherwise delete the stuff.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:17 AM on April 13, 2011

I held some similarly stupid beliefs as a young person and I know the kind of shame you feel. I encourage you to travel as much as possible. Get to know people of other races and ethnicities, not just as curiosities or because you feel guilty, but because you honestly have something in common with them. I grew up in an area that was extremely segregated by race and class. I literally never knew a middle-class black person. When I started working and met a lot of black people with college degrees, it really shifted the way I thought. Hey, these people are just like me! I knew that intellectually, of course, but experiencing it was absolutely key to overcoming prejudice. I started becoming aware of how my prejudices show up in every day life. Here at mefi I frequently have no idea who is what race (or gender), and I'll admit that I've been surprised a time or two when I look at profile pictures. It's sometimes painful to realize that I've made an assumption or judgment based on who I think the person is, but the awareness is crucial to fighting ignorance.

Keep being aware of yourself and your thoughts. If you want to make penance, donate anonymously to some organization that strives for racial equality. Realize that who you were does not determine who you will become. Keep your mind open to new people and new ideas.
posted by desjardins at 9:21 AM on April 13, 2011

It sounds like you have worked hard toward being an open-minded member of society. Be proud of that! And I hope it means you won't mind if I mention: Racism is racism, no matter where it is directed. Calling prejudice against whites "reverse racism" implies that whites own our society.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:25 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

You didn't know any better. You did what you could with what you had. Yeah, in hindsight it might be inappropriate, but you couldn't have done anything other than what you did.

If you were to spout of racist views now, that would be a different story, because you know better now. Back then, things were different. You were different. Your views were obviously going to be different.
posted by Solomon at 9:32 AM on April 13, 2011

I was a Republican as a teenager. Youth for Goldwater. . .

We grow up, and leave behind the jerk-ass stuff our younger selves did.

Be gentle with yourself.
posted by Danf at 9:32 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like the really critical thing is that you're not sure you've left behind the mental habits that got you there. Learning how to stand up for your beliefs in a non-confrontational manner is hard but what it really takes is practice; I got this from a debate group I was in but it also helps to rehearse things in your own head or, if you find that doesn't work for you, you can get help from a therapist or a sympathetic friend. ("Hey, one of my friends said X the other day and I just didn't know how to call him on it kindly").
posted by Lady Li at 10:01 AM on April 13, 2011

Right now you've suppressed your old style of thinking, but it doesn't sound like you've eliminated it. That makes sense to me; you spent a lot of time and energy making racist thought a part of your life, and without an equal amount of time, energy, and mental reflection, that sort of thought will always be a part of your life as long as you don't actively replace it with something else. As you have seen, that has made it easy for you to slip back into your old mode of thinking, even when you don't mean to or want to.

I think the best thing you could do in this circumstance is actively take on the task of refuting your earlier beliefs. Donating $$ takes 5 minutes, and doesn't leave much of an impact. Meeting people of other races might change your outward actions, but I don't know that it can really change deep-seated beliefs, instead of causing you to behave in a certain way and say certain things despite how you really feel. I think you've got to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and blog about WHY you were wrong both for yourself and for others who might think like you did.

Unlike others, I think you shouldn't delete your blog -- or if you do, you should archive the contents. Instead, I think you should get a new blog, or edit your old blog and once a day, take a look at one of your old posts and then write up an analysis breaking down why your old blog post was wrongheaded, and what you'd do/say differently now. That can be a huge healing exercise and at the end you'll find your knee-jerk reaction won't be to respond in-kind to racist comments. You (hopefully) just won't have that impulse anymore because it will completely be second nature to disagree, because you've spent so much time and energy really delving into how and why you think as you do now.

It's awesome that you've grown out of this stage, though. You should really be congratulating yourself, because for most people, what they learn in their most impressionable years is what they stick with. Good luck in the future!
posted by lesli212 at 10:15 AM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's a role model for you: someone who changed his mind in a very public way after working against marriage equality. Louis Marinelli.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm going to disagree with the person who said you should show up again on the account and contradict your earlier self. On the Internet, our earlier selves can haunt us. If you're no longer connected with your old Livejournal username, consider that a reprieve. Delete the thing and be happy it can't be found if a prospective employer or friend Googles you. You've learned your lesson – don't bring punishment down on your own head unnecessarily.
posted by zadcat at 10:59 AM on April 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

If this guy can forgive himself for being a racist, surely you can too. He's actually a friend of a friend. He speaks around the country and he has a facebook page too. Maybe read his book or see him speak. It might make you feel better. You might try volunteering in underprivileged neighborhoods or tutoring and underprivileged kid. Your guilt doesn't do the world any good. Your actions will. Follow Frankie's example.
posted by bananafish at 11:48 AM on April 13, 2011

I think the most plausible reading of the question is that the blog has long been deleted, and that the friend who read it had read it way back when, since it sounds like the "incestuous" friend network has been together for awhile. But I guess it's possible it's still up, so on the off-chance that it is, delete it!

If you want to make penance, donate anonymously to some organization that strives for racial equality.

I was going to say something like this, without the anonymous part. If you find that you've tried the good advice in this thread--chalking it up to teenage gullibility--but it hasn't helped you to move on, then why not get actively involved in something like what bananafish mentions? Or, in fighting politicians who capitalize on the kinds of sentiments you now see as wrongheaded? There's no shortage of them.
posted by Beardman at 1:38 PM on April 13, 2011

How do I get over the shame I have from my past? Also, are there any tips or resources on how to unlearn passivity/prejudice/mind control? Is that what is present in my case?

You get over the shame by forgiving yourself, and allowing yourself to feel good about having enough of a sense of personal responsibility to re-think your views.

And moving forward, it doesn't all have to revolve around penance -- think about all the interesting things out there that you can learn if you try to make a habit of avoiding passivity. That's a legit payoff, right?
posted by desuetude at 2:29 PM on April 13, 2011

I think you're being way too hard on yourself, and making way too big a deal over this. It's normal for people's beliefs to evolve over time. It's not like you were burning crosses on anyone's lawns... you simply had a belief that you no longer agree with. Clearly you were not so attached to your prior beliefs as to have been unable to change them. Congratulate yourself on that.
posted by mahamandarava at 2:32 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to the good advice given upthread, I think this is also a good chance for you to re-examine how your ideas of redemption, guilt, punishment, and so on fit into the broader picture of how you relate to people.

Resolve to give people the benefit of the doubt more, since you're now learning a lot about how unfair it is to judge people based on actions in their distant past, or to judge them solely on the basis of some bad quality.

Take this attitude, of giving the benefit of the doubt, finding reasons to empathize rather than condemn, sticking up for people who are being judged harshly, assessing people's thinking on their own terms rather than your own, and start directing it OUTWARD at the other people in your life.

That's what you're hoping the rest of the world does for you, and it will be easier to get from other people, and yourself, if you are aggressive about giving it to other people whenever you can.
posted by alphanerd at 2:33 PM on April 13, 2011

I would love to read a blog of a grownup confronting their teenage ignorance. Log back in to your LJ, and go post-by-post annotating them with updates on your current perspective versus the one you had then. Would be incredibly compelling.
posted by anildash at 2:41 PM on April 13, 2011

We all do and say stupid things when we're young, I think it's a part of growing up. The fact that you can look back and see where you went wrong and actually change, shows that you are a self aware person. I think a little shame is okay, but don't beat yourself up over it. Everyone makes mistakes but only some people actually learn from them and grow to be better people. You should be proud that you've grown to be a better person.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 7:12 PM on April 13, 2011

"Reverse racism" = "completely false and racist concept designed by white people?"

I'll be blunt. It sounds like you're just as indoctrinated as you were as a teen, only in the opposite direction. You seem to be easily influenced by the opinions of others around you, without coming to your beliefs based on logic or your own judgments. And based on the statement you made about "reverse racism" I'd hazard a guess that you're uncomfortable holding shades of gray and you prefer extremes in order to compensate for your underlying insecurity.

I think this is why your'e still insecure about your past, because on some level you realize the ground you stand on now isn't much firmer.
posted by timsneezed at 4:19 AM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I have to agree with zadcat. You really don't need to keep the LJ albatross around your neck, and bring the focus back onto who you were, as opposed to who you are now. I say delete them, but it might be a good exercise in self-reflection to go back and counter your old self, point by point, but in a less public venue - a personal diary, or maybe in a journal entry with entry limited to a few supportive friends.

Also consider that with a few exceptions, most people don't set out to try and make you say racist things to shame you. Most people do have a few blind spots though - even the most progressive, tolerant seeming people. Not all progress in changing your mindset is even.
posted by ultrabuff at 7:38 AM on April 14, 2011

I would also add that "reverse racism" is not necessarily any of the things you now say it is. Obviously, without knowing exactly what you said I can't make any call on whether you were bigoted or not but it is absolutely and demonstrably true that racism comes in all colours, and anti-white racism exists, and is not always simply "a completely false and racist concept designed by white people who are threatened by an imaginary loss of privilege." With respect, I'd say that is a worryingly extremist view you might want to reconsider.

I don't actually like the term "reverse racism" because it falsely implies that racism can only go in one direction. This is bullshit. Racism is racism. Anyone who displays prejudice against someone because of racial difference is a racist, period. As for the question itself, my answer is that you should perhaps examine the underlying premise of it more closely. But as far as getting past stupid things you wrote as a kid goes, hey, almost all of us did it, although not necessarily in a publically visible arena. If I had done that I'd take one of two courses, depending on how bad I felt.

1. - Write another piece updating my views and posting it under the old one.

2. - Say "Hey, it's no big deal. I was a dumb kid."
posted by Decani at 8:57 AM on April 14, 2011

This is more common than you think it is. Ricky Tomlinson, who is a left-wing actor that supported Scargill during the miner's strike, spent some of his youth involved with the National Front. People learn and they change their minds. A number of people with radical or leftist views either formerly were or grew up in an environment where the kyriarchy was strongly reinforced.

Given the comments you say about your relationship, it sounds like you're nervous and guilty about a lot of things and it might be worth seeking out a therapist to talk this over.
posted by mippy at 9:54 AM on April 14, 2011

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