I am a racist.

I don't want to be one. I try not to be. I'm not an obvious, hate-spewing bigot like Clippers owner Donald Sterling or renegade rancher Cliven Bundy. I like to think of myself as evolved and open-minded, a lover of all people no matter their ethnicity.

But as our nation continues its ongoing reflection and debate about race, as we struggle to overcome lingering vestiges of our shameful past of institutional discrimination, the conversation has turned to the more subtle ways that racism permeates our society. Although it's encouraging that idiotic comments from the likes of Sterling and Bundy have been so widely condemned, the fact that there's less tolerance for such overt displays of prejudice doesn't mean that the rest of us are in the clear.

And that means it's time for those who consider themselves to be enlightened thinkers striving for a post-racial society to examine their own more hidden biases — the ones they rather arrogantly claim not to have but which tend to seep into their thoughts and actions despite their best intentions.

Every time I hear someone say, "I'm not a racist," I cringe a little because such statements are often accompanied by racist sentiments, veiled or otherwise. As the song from the musical "Avenue Q" suggests, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." The fact that my kind of racism — variously referred to as unconscious, situational or aversive racism — is often found in those who place a high priority on fairness and equality doesn't mean it's not harmful.

So rather than denying that part of me jumps to unfair assumptions about people based on race, I'm peeling away my protective layer of self-righteousness and declaring that, yes, I too am a racist. But I'm in a continual state of recovery, and in this I believe I am also not alone.

Most important to this effort is that we strive to teach our children by way of example that we are capable of honest introspection, that we can learn and grow and improve ourselves. We need to talk to our kids about the complexities of racism, and instill in them a sense of empathy. It's often said that children aren't born racists, but as they grow they begin to notice differences among people. It's up to us parents to breed in our kids a respectfulness for those differences, and an appreciation for those who have walked in shoes unlike our own.

It's not an easy path. As a society we remain deeply divided over what actually constitutes racism, and how far we should go to try to offset its effects.

At one point in history, Orange County played a pivotal role in moving the dial forward. In the 1940s, the Mendez vs. Westminster lawsuit led to the desegregation of public schools throughout the state and helped pave the way for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education that desegregated schools nationwide.

But 60 years after Brown, education remains a key battleground over equal rights and a prime example of just how confusing and difficult erasing the specter of racism can be.

I'll never forget the first time I walked into a classroom in Newport Beach. We had just moved here from Los Angeles, where we had lived in a racially mixed neighborhood and my then-6-year-old son had attended a school with a diverse student body. Upon entering his new class, I was momentarily startled by the relative whiteness of the room. We were definitely not in L.A. anymore.

Was my reaction just another form of racism? I'm still not sure. We had moved to Orange County mainly for work-related reasons, but we chose to live in Newport specifically because of its reputation for great schools. It's certainly not surprising that those schools would be located in an affluent — and by extension, less racially diverse — area.

Of course I wanted the best for my children, but what's less clear to me is whether my choice somehow tacitly supported a system of unequal treatment. I strongly believe that every child has the right to a quality education, but when push comes to shove I'm pretty much like any parent: My kid comes first.

Nowhere do such concerns lead to greater contention than in higher education, where the treatment of race never seems to be adequately settled. Just last month, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan's ban on race-based preferences in college admissions, a case that was portrayed as a contest between states' rights versus equal protection. Here in California, a similar ban was passed by voters in 1996, a move that remains so controversial that a bill to reverse it gained some traction this year before stalling in the Legislature.

And so the debate continues. But as it does, I realize that change doesn't just come about through court cases and movements and outrage over small-minded billionaires and ignorant ranchers.

The change begins within each of us when we acknowledge our own racist tendencies and do our best to work through them.

Though it hurts to let go of my long-held illusions, I am a racist too. Now that I've admitted it, maybe I can become less of one.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.