My generation grew up associating “racism” with images of snarling dogs and Alabama governors, anti-busing protesters in 70s Boston, maybe an uncle from Kentucky who cut his daughter off for marrying a black man. If you’re younger, you probably think of racism in terms of voter suppression in the south, frothy birthers denouncing Obama, or thugs like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn lynching via firearm. If that’s the kind of racist you mean when you say you’re not a racist, you’re probably telling the truth.
Denying you’re that kind of racist is easy — you might as well be saying you love puppies. It took me a long time to see that just because I wasn’t that kind of racist didn’t mean I didn’t have to confront other kinds of racism in myself.
My father was an ultra-liberal of the Hubert Humphrey variety, and my mother came here from France as an adult with no baggage at all about race. I certainly never heard a negative word about black people growing up — rather the opposite. In fact, I remember being shocked by my Grandmother’s use of the word “colored.” Had I ever used the n-word — a thought that would never have even occurred to me — it would have been the only reason I can imagine my parents washing my mouth out with soap.
When we moved to suburban New York, my idealized view of black people was challenged. Our junior and high schools were in one building, and I found myself an extremely short and not very masculine 7th grader in a sea of 3,500 students. Some of the black kids came from pretty rough homes and cultivated a tough attitude. My parents always reframed the hostility. “Some kids just have a chip on their shoulder — you would too if you dealt with what they’ve had to deal with.”
Thank God there was the Drama Society, where creative types like me took refuge from the racial tensions outside. I became best friends with Eddie, who told me about praying every night as a child to wake up white and blond. He was the first person I had sex with, and he introduced me to gay life in Manhattan even before we’d graduated. I became incredibly close to other African-Americans in the cast, including a beautiful and funny girl who I later lived with in New York for several years as she struggled to make it in stand-up. She could get away with a lot of jokes that were off limits to a white comic and we thought of race as a good source for edgy humor.
One March in the mid-80s, between jobs, I became a substitute teacher. My very first assignment was teaching 8th graders in Harlem. The first day all I could see was a blur of black and brown faces. By the second day — thank God — I started to perceive them as individuals. By the third day, their differences were all I could notice. There was the extroverted one, and the shy one. There was the nerd, and the class clown. There was the girl who always raised her hand and never knew the answer, and another always knew the answer but never raised her hand. In short, in all the ways that mattered, the kids were just like any group of 8th graders anywhere in the world.
Oddly, this pedestrian realization surprised me, and I was ashamed that it did. The truth was that I had expected the kids to behave like stereotypes — angry, disrespectful, all dialect and no dialogue. Hadn’t I learned from high school what bullshit those two-dimensional views were? It was a lesson I thought I wouldn’t have to learn again, but of course I did. It just took twenty years.
At 44, I spent 9 months in a California state prison as the end result of a decade-long battle with addiction. It was like high school on steroids. At first, every African-American inmate seemed the same to me — loud, hostile, swaggery. After a few weeks, I realized that this was just how a lot of inmates felt compelled to present themselves in that environment because they were as afraid as I was. It slowly dawned on me that I was doing again what I’d started to do with those 8th graders — confused presentation with personality, characteristics with character.
As I got to know the black and Latino guys in the dorm, I was admonished by the other whites for being too friendly. Didn’t I know a race-riot could pop off without warning at any moment? I told them I could not be counted on to fight — I had nothing against D-Roll, or C-Crazy, or Carlos or Tefunk. I almost got beat up for declaring my non-violent intentions, but I’d been smart enough to be very generous with my commissary and that proved an excellent investment.
In a place where most negative assumptions about other people are reinforced, mine were weakened. I briefly entertained the delusion that I had finally transcended race and arrived at that mythical place of color-blindness. Only recently did I realize what wishful thinking that was.
Last year a new African-American employee took my order at the deli, and I asked for 1/3 of a pound of ham. He laid some out on the scale, appearing a bit nervous about it. He finally asked with a fair amount of embarrassment how to input 1/3 on the scale. “Point three three,” I answered, sensing at first that it wasn’t registering.”You know, like 33 cents is 1/3rd of a dollar.” That seemed to make it understandable. He was very apologetic and of course I did my best to be completely casual about it.
I told this story on my blog at the time as representative of the excruciating mediocrity of the California public school system. (If you’re fairly well-behaved, and do the bare minimum, it’s kind of frightening how little you can know and still graduate.) But when I described the young man, it was all I could do not to mention that he was black.
That’s when I began to notice how often I would add an ethnic or racial descriptor when it was completely unnecessary. If a white person cut me off in traffic, or was rude to me at the post office, or drove impossibly slow, I would never mention his or her race when telling the story. But somehow it was this “Mexican asshole” or “mean black lady” or “Asian driver.”
This is a test you can take at home. See how often you include ethnicity if the subject of your anecdote is Caucasian, and how rarely you omit it if that’s not the case. Listen carefully to the stories of others as well. You may be rather surprised at the ubiquity of the double standard.
This is one of the symptoms of white privilege. When a white person is discourteous, or loud, or inconsiderate, he or she gets to be just that one thing. When a non-white person is any of those things, his or her skin color or background always seem to get mentioned, as if it’s a function of the misbehavior. When you’re a person of color, the degree of difficulty is always higher, the threshold for criticism always lower. If you don’t believe me, try this little thought experiment. Imagine the outcome of the Michael Dunn case if four good ole boys had pulled into that Florida gas station blaring Aerosmith instead of four young black teenagers with the hip-hop cranked up.
It’s true that there’s a huge difference between the kind of bias that leads to malicious conduct and the kind that mostly exists as a passing thought, hopefully one that you recognize and excise as it occurs. But you have to see the weed before you can dig it up. Better to face the truth of our racism and seek to eradicate it than pretend to ourselves that it’s not even there.
Edited and Published by: WG