White like me

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I’ve never felt nervous upon seeing a police officer. Why would I? They have no reason to bother me. The police are there to protect me.

This is the perspective of a law-abiding white person. Those with darker skin and/or criminal records are probably not nodding their heads in agreement.

In a normal day, I’m not fretting about my skin color/Otherness: most of my coworkers look like me, only without the superior fashion sense. When I hop onto twitter to see the news from my favorite writers, I see people who look like me but with beards.

No one has ever commented on how articulate I am, as though my fluency with English were somehow unexpected.

When I was uninsured and unemployed, no one looked at me askance when I went to the free health clinic.

No one has ever perceived me as a threat to her child.

No one has ever looked at me in a crowded park and wondered if was going to shout Allahu Akbar and blow us all to smithereens.

Every single interviewer for every single job I’ve ever applied for has been the same color as me. When I did not get jobs, I didn’t worry that it was because of my color. When I did get jobs, no one accused me of being there to fill a quota.

I try to be cognizant of my white privilege, but I guarantee I don’t think about race as much as some people do. When I express an opinion, be it benign (“I like spicy food”) or stupid (“I’m pulling for Donald Trump”), I don’t pause to wonder how it might reflect on other people of my race. A small example: I have a bad habit of assuming whiteness when I read about a person in a book or in the news– unless that person is a manicurist or a maid at a hotel or a migrant farmer.

So, okay, fantastic: I’m educated about race and racism and race issues. Yay for me. Yay for the white person.

Being enlightened and sensitive and thoughtful makes me a sympathetic figure to my friends, who are mostly all liberals, who are mostly all white. Being enlightened and sensitive and thoughtful has not, however, prevented any racially-motivated massacres or burned churches or burned crosses.

Ordinary, casual, frequently-subconscious racism is bad enough. We’re all guilty of that sometimes, no matter our color, no matter our good intentions.

But Klan-style terrorism, man. What do you do?

No one has ever used a racial slur against me. I’m thirty-four year old and I’ve never even heard the word nigger, except in a strictly socio-linguistic context. I’m sure know people who think it and speak it privately, but most racists know better than to expose themselves in front of casual acquaintances. They don’t enjoy being publicly shamed any more than I do.

So it’s not like I can spread the gospel of not being an asshole to my friends or acquaintances. The only injustices I see are small. Recently I was asked to select images for a presentation from a large set of pictures. I went through and counted 120ish humans, six of whom were people of color. That’s pretty lame. It needs to be fixed. But it’s not an act of terrorism or even deliberate racism.

One option would be to join a grassroots campaign or a local civic group. For several reasons this does not appeal to me. One of those reasons is that I don’t want to correct injustice as much as I want to prevent it.

When I think about cultural problems, I invariably reach the same conclusion: teach your children well. There’s nothing you can do about the true nutjobs, but almost all children, and very many adults, can respond to education.

People can change. This guy did.

I do not have literal children and I have few figurative children. My acquaintances are few and my friends fewer. There’s not much racism to undo in the people I know.

Here’s what I’d really like to do: I’d like to work one-on-one with racists. Reading through the comments of an internet article will not change hearts and minds, especially if that article supports your opinion in the first place. Talking with a real human being makes you think about your positions. Sometimes it even makes you listen.

I’m trying to picture the Craigslist ad: “Dear racists: I am right and you are wrong. Let’s get together so I can explain why.”

Probably I need to work on that a little.

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7 responses »

  1. Hi Jess! Exceedingly pleased to hear from you:) Having returned from a full day at a Jersey beach only an hour ago though, this post will require a good 8 hours sack time if your correspondent is to do it justice. And for the record your English language eloquence has indeed been noted by this reader…As citizens of the USA we do of course live in a land of oligarchs and immigrants many of whom have had to encounter the “otherness factor” throughout their lives.Hoping that all’s well with you in the Midwest until the morning light, I remain your aging somewhat browned by the sun friend, Tom

    Reply
  2. Well done! Short, succinct, and spot on. I identify with you completely. In my own efforts to overcome racism, I adopted a Black-Vietnamese son over forty years ago. Still, the churches burn. If I feel despair at the rearing of the hydra head of racism we’re witnessing, I can only imagine how a person of color must feel. More than ever, I am convinced that empathy is the only road to morality. It’s obvious to me that a Klansman with a burning stake in his hand has no clue how an African-American adolescent feels. Maybe you’re right and taking on a racist one-on-one, face-to-face, is the way to go. I no longer see mixed race adoption as the answer. I wanted to erase race altogether; I see now that cannot be done and probably shouldn’t be. Why prefer heterogeneity to diversity when one is so much more interesting and fun than the other? I agree that education is crucial, as is setting an example. I’m not an activist or a protest marcher, but when I see a black teenage boy, I look him in the eye and smile. Perhaps it helps that when I look at him I see something of my son. What I most certainly see is a young man who could be anybody’s kid, who’s just trying to get through the day like the rest of us.

    Reply
  3. Bells, whistles, sirens blaring. I am sure you were just being figurative, but on the off chance: Do NOT solicit racists on Craigslist. Those I’ve encountered over the years have not had open minds or gentle spirits. You have been betrayed and misunderstood by “friends”. It scares me witless to imagine the hateful responses that would come from bitter people who don’t know you. Yes, racism can be fought one-on-one. No, I don’t have a solution. But please, please don’t open yourself to potential predators on Craigslist.

    You were eloquent before you were two and, over the years, have just enhanced your gift with humor, compassion and poetry.

    Reply

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