Zack Arias grew up in Gwinnett County during the late 1970s to 1980s, surrounded by other kids who looked much like him. He could count on one hand how many black kids he may have come into contact with at school, and as a result of this “white-washed” life, he was admittedly a racist for many, many years.
Arias, who has lived in Forsyth County for a year now, admitted to his past anger and ignorance in a video that he posted to his YouTube channel on Thursday, June 11, and shared on other social media platforms.
In the video, he talks about growing up in North Georgia and how he came to the realization about 10 years ago that the actions he had been taking and his preconceptions of certain people were wrong.
“What I’ve always found is if I can just share my own personal experience, then maybe that will speak to somebody,” Arias said. “And I didn’t make that video for black people. I didn’t make that video to get a pat on the back from black folks, saying, ‘Oh thanks for being a good white guy.’ I made that video for people who are like me, and specifically for people who are like me up to 5 or 10 years ago who don’t yet understand white privilege, don’t understand yet that there is a systemic issue in our society that we need to face.”
He said he made the video knowing that there are probably other white community members out there who will only listen and hear what is being said if it comes from another white person — an unconscious bias that Arias said he has been guilty of himself.
A white-washed life
Arias, 47, has lived in Georgia since he was 3 years old, and he remembers growing up in Lawrenceville and the racial biases that many saw no issue with. Family jokes riddled with slurs were appropriate as long as they were said behind closed doors, and teachers announced to kids their opposition to a referendum that would bring MARTA into Gwinnett because they said it would allow poor communities from Atlanta to bring more crime into the county.
Without other perspectives to base his beliefs off of, Arias found himself getting angry and defensive toward other groups of people later on in life. With the rise of the internet and social media that allowed groups from all over the world to finally connect, suddenly Arias had access to hear a diverse set of voices, but he did not want to listen.
“When white privilege and #MeToo and microaggressions — as a white man at the top of the totem pole in American society, I felt attacked,” Arias said. “I felt like, ‘Well, I can’t say anything. I can’t make a joke about anything now. Everything’s politically correct. You can’t even tell that I’m being sarcastic? I’m just joking. Why are you so upset about it? And look, here’s all the statistics.’ Not realizing that I’m dismissing how someone’s feeling in that moment.”
At the time, the experiences and stories that others were sharing online just felt wrong to Arias. He was a good guy, and he didn’t feel like he was a racist or even that he was doing or saying anything inherently offensive or upsetting.
Soon after, Arias started to do his own research on racial inequality in America, and he used to argue with others online with facts and statistics. Now, he said he understands that his research was based on his need to win an argument, and he did not truly listen to what others were saying.
That was until Arias came across a video of a white Southern man who simply sat in his pickup truck and explained how he also used to be a racist. He used to look at problems in the black community as their own — issues that were caused on their own and could then be fixed on their own. He said he realized, however, that systemic racism and white culture has played a huge role in the issues that continue to plague the black community in America.
Watching this video, Arias finally understood the point that black citizens had tried many times to explain to him before. He realized that he had heard the same words spoken over and over again, but it took a white man saying them for him to fully listen.
“But I’m not a racist,” Arias said in his video, on the verge of tears.
Cleaning out the closet
Even before seeing the video of the man in his truck, Arias recognized that he needed to change.
About 10 years ago, he received a passport and started to travel the world, finally taking in views that he had never experienced during his years living only in Georgia.
“Getting out into the world and experiencing different cultures and different people, that was what began the change in me,” Arias said. “I had a very white, conservative American viewpoint of the world. That’s how I was raised. That was the environment that I lived in.”
Once he was able to meet others from different cultures and different parts of the world and actually sit down with them at a dinner table and share a meal, he found he had preconceptions about certain groups and cultures, and he found that those preconceptions were completely wrong.
The realization turned his belief system upside down — if nothing he assumed was true, then what other assumptions had he made in his life that could also be false?
He compared it to cleaning out his closet. He said he went to organize one part of his closet and then realized the whole thing was a mess.
“That’s how my life has been like for the past 10 years,” Arias said. “I went to go organize my shoes, and now everything is out on the bed and I’m redoing the entire thing.”
Although Arias has turned his viewpoint of the world around, he’s still thinking about how he can be better and checking himself when he becomes angry or defensive.
Now, instead of arguing, Arias said he has learned to really listen, and he tries to approach others with kindness and understanding instead of facts and statistics.
“When I think about black people and the hurt that they’re going through right now — and this is the hurt that their parents told them about,” Arias said. “And this is the hurt that their grandparents told them about. And this is the hurt that their great-grandparents told them about. And here they are, hurting, and they're watching their children hurt. And we as white people cannot possibly fathom that generational amount of hurt that has built up in the black community. And for me as a white man to come back at them with statistics and data and not to sit and go, ‘Tell me about your hurt.’”
Arias said that the best way for him to change the world, however, is to make sure that his three boys do not grow up with the “white-washed” life that he did. He wants his sons to be empathetic and to stand up for those who are marginalized in American society.
Putting the camera down
As a commercial and editorial photographer with a large online following, when Arias first saw the protests and riots erupting across the nation, he said his first instinct was to grab his camera and jump into the middle of it.
He immediately stopped himself.
He instead remembered what many of his Arab, Pakistani and Indian friends said to him before about “white gaze,” a term he had not understood before. Many times, residents in Arab or Indian communities become frustrated when white travelers from America take photos in these areas that do not represent their culture and that further perpetuate stereotypes.
This same complaint has been made in recent weeks of white journalists and photographers who are capturing moments from recent protests and riots from a strictly white lens. Arias said that he didn’t want to take away from black voices and black photographers, so he has put his camera down for now.
“It’s not about me right now,” Arias said. “It’s been about me for 400 years in this country. I need to sit down, shut up and just stand with people who are hurting.”
Instead, he has decided to offer up his photography studio and his online platform to any black creatives who may want to use them to create and promote any of their own projects. He made the same offer in the video, and he is currently working with black friends in the community to get the message out.
“Instead of putting my voice out into the world, I can help amplify black voices,” Arias said.
He also went out to protests this past weekend with a sign to show his support for the community around him — a more diverse and accepting community than the one he knew in North Georgia just 30 years ago.