Most people cringe at the thought of being called a racist, but John McKenzie says he welcomes the label. In fact, the 49-year-old conference and event planner leaves the house each morning proudly sporting a badge that announces his racism to the world.
McKenzie is the founder of the Recovering Racists Network, an organization that encourages individuals to examine their prejudices, and one way McKenzie confronts his own racism is to wear the small green-and-white badge that reads "Recovering Racist."
McKenzie has received his share of criticism, even from supporters, for his use of the word "racist," but insists that the word is essential to his mission. "As long as the word 'racist' is out there as those terrible, bad people, no one will adopt it. Even if you don't want to be a racist in our culture, it's hard not to be."
McKenzie founded the organization after discovering he wasn't above having racist sentiments himself. While working as a firefighter, he made an overtly racist remark that surprised even him. "There was one black firefighter in our group and our eyes locked as I said it. I thought that I wasn't racist, and I came out with this really racist statement.
"My focus is to inspire people to work on their own issues of racism and to respond to racism in a way that doesn't shame or blame other people," he continued. "There are people out there who think of racism and only think of the Ku Klux Klan."
Instead, said McKenzie, people should be seeing the subtle racism in their own actions and attitudes. Each morning, he pins the badge to his lapel and offers the public a glimpse of something otherwise easily hidden. "You feel uncomfortable when you put the badge on," he said. "If I wear a badge that says 'I am against racism,' it makes us all feel better and that's a good thing, but these badges speak to a different level with people. It creates dialogue."
So far, McKenzie has sold more than 800 badges through his Web site and at conferences and special events.
But his organization's race awareness campaign doesn't stop there. Two years ago, the Recovering Racists Network joined with Mount Diablo High School to develop and facilitate a 10-week, after-school, multicultural student program called Race Awareness Program, or R.A.P.
The program, which is now in place at two other Contra Costa schools, is designed to help students address their individual and collective experiences around prejudice, segregation and discrimination. Students selected to participate explore and resolve their own issues about race through experiential exercises, personal interaction and reflection.
Students engage in discussion-provoking exercises like "first thoughts," where students are asked to say the first thing that comes to their minds when confronted with the word "racism." "They talk about their cultural differences and learn to be allies for each other and for other races," McKenzie explained.
"Our goal is to create a safe space there they can work on their issues, so that when issues of racism come up outside they can deal with it in a mature way. I don't want to be an activist; I want to be an inspirationalist. I want to encourage kids to take a leadership role in their peer group, to learn how to speak out whenever they see racism happening."
Students who complete the program receive a $100 stipend and a certificate for completing the program "to show them their time is valuable," he said.
McKenzie is currently compiling information for a database and catalog of organizations with an anti-racism, anti-hate or anti-violence focus. This list will be published to contrast with the hate groups list published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Believing there are more anti-hate groups in America than hate groups, McKenzie intends the list to give hope to those who want to work to end racism and intolerance. Individuals can help in the effort by sending information on anti-hate groups, including the organization's name and contact information, to Recovering Racists Network at firstname.lastname@example.org.