Facing my own racism
I was talking with a friend about racism and he brought up a thing I’d never thought about, in terms of why people go all frothy when told that they’ve done something racist. For many people, especially those who grew up during segregation, being racist frequently was actively pursued and something that people were proud of.
When we think of racism, there’s a tendency to think of just the overt, violent sort. “Oh, no! I’m not racist.” But racism is often quieter and more insidious.
So, here are some ways in which I have discovered that I am racist. It shames me.
- On tour in New Orleans, I came out of the hotel in the morning and a black man approached me. I didn’t hear what he said, but assumed he was looking for a handout, so I politely said I couldn’t help him. He was another guest at the hotel and had asked if I could pull my van up to his car. He needed a jumpstart. Had he been white, I wouldn’t have made that assumption and was horrifed that my brain had just gone, “click, black man = homeless.”
- I grew up in the South and for years, would have insisted that it was more integrated than the Pacific Northwest and that racism was dead. Then I came home for a tour. At first I relaxed, because things felt “right.” Unlike the lily white places I’d been on tour in the PNW, there was a mix of people here. Until I realized that the “mix” was split down, ahem, “class” lines. All the janitors and cafeteria ladies were black. Teachers and principals were predominately white. It had been like that when I was growing up, but I’d never thought it exceptional.
- I had food delivered and the Latino delivery guy spoke perfect English. I was stunned.
- Being unsurprised at the fact that my friend plays violin beautifully, because she’s Chinese. They’re good at things like that. Right?
Oh, there’s more, but that’s all I can face at the moment. I’m sure there have been other times where I’ve made decisions based on someone’s appearance and there will be in the future. That the fact that I don’t want to be racist doesn’t exempt me from racism. What I can do is learn to listen, and to examine my own expectations.
Recommended reading: How not to be insane when accused of racism (A guide for white people).