'Am I racist?' You may not like the answer

Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT) June 20, 2020

(CNN)The George Floyd protests have forced many White Americans to consider tough questions about race. But the most difficult question may be the one they're asking themselves.

Google says searches for the term, "Am I racist," have spiked in recent weeks to an all-time high. Floyd's death at the hands of a White police officer has sparked a racial awakening in the US. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has surged, and White people are snapping up books like "How to Be an Antiracist" and "White Fragility."
But a Google search and a few books can only go so far in answering such a complex and loaded query.
So CNN called some activists, psychologists and historians and asked them: How would you help White people answer that question?

First, let's define racism

The first step in self-knowledge is defining what it means to be a racist, and defining racism itself.
Wornie Reed, a veteran civil rights activist and the director of the Race and Social Policy Center at Virginia Tech, says, "A racist person is a person who commits racist acts."
Those acts, he says, are backed by a set of beliefs that support the idea that race determines human traits and capacities and makes one race automatically superior to another.
"If they do racist things, I'm willing to call them a racist," Reed says. "You can be a racist even if you don't intend to be one."
A protester holds up a homemade sign during a march on June 12, 2020, in New York City.
And racism? It's not one thing but many.
It's a system of advantage based on race, scholars say. It's a collection of stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory behavior. It's overt and covert. And it operates across an individual, group and societal level.

The truth? Everyone has some racist attitudes

Here's the bad news if you are one of those people asking, "Am I racist?"
"If you have to ask if you are a racist, you are," says Angela Bell, an assistant professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. "And if you are not asking if you are a racist, you are."
Bell's paradoxical response is part of what she and others say about racism: It's almost impossible not to be a racist growing up in the US. If you think you're immune from it, that denial itself is part of how racism perpetuates.
A woman holds a sign during a rally to mark Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, in San Francisco.
"You start off with the assumption that you are, because everybody living in the United States has internalized stereotypes about Black people," says Mark Naison, an activist and a professor of African American Studies at Fordham University in New York City.
"One of the things I learned very early in my development is that everyone in American society internalized anti-Black attitudes because they are so ingrained in our culture," he says.
That includes White liberals like himself, Naison discovered.
He was in a relationship with a Black woman for six years. Her family practically became his family because he spent so much time with them. One day he stumbled upon a research paper she had written in college. He started reading it and was surprised at how coherent and well-written it was -- and then it hit him.
"I said, 'Holy crap!' " he remembers. "I had internalized all of these expectations that Black people are intellectually weaker. I've got to work on myself."
A lot of anti-racism work today leads to talk about "implicit bias," or "racial bias." Those are terms that describe how racial stereotypes and assumptions infiltrate our subconscious. People can act and think in racist ways without knowing it.