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).

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14 Responses

  1. Mary Robinette Kowal

    This was a hard post to write and I’m not looking for anyone to pat me on the back for doing it. What would make me feel less exposed and naked in my shame, is if you commented about a moment of racism you discovered in yourself. (Removed because of Rose Fox’s point.)

    1. Mike Munsil

      Bravo, anyway!

      I was raised in a racist white society (Panama Canal Zone ’60s-’70s). We were perhaps 20 years or so behind the rest of the US in realizing it, understanding it and dealing with it (to the extent that it has been dealt with, here). I often travel to Latin America and when I do, I relax in a way that I don’t in the US. I know why. It’s because in Latin America, I know ‘my place’; it’s at the top of the pecking order and I’m more comfortable there.

      So, all in all, and although I’m never as comfortable here in the US as in Latin America, it’s better for me to be here. Perhaps some day I’ll be totally comfortable here as well.

  2. John Chu

    Just to point out how entrenched racism can be:

    Occasionally, I’m caught off-guard by a Chinese-American who speaks American accented English despite being a Chinese-American who speaks American accented English. *blush*

  3. Rose Fox

    Facing up to this stuff is so important. I’m struggling with it right now because as I’ve started paying more attention to race-related issues, I’ve become much more aware of my own racist thought patterns, but that doesn’t make it easier to uproot them, though at least now I can mostly catch them before I act on them.

    I hesitate to offer examples even though you asked for them, because in general I’m not sure that filling a blog with a litany of racism ends up being a helpful anti-racist thing. I will settle for saying that every single day I catch myself making race-based assumptions about people I pass on the street or subway, and that I’m also trying to remember that race-based assumptions about non-white people aren’t the only kind of racist thought and I need to be as vigilant or more so against ways that I excuse or overlook racist behavior in my fellow white people.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      I hesitate to offer examples even though you asked for them, because in general I’m not sure that filling a blog with a litany of racism ends up being a helpful anti-racist thing.

      Mm… you might be right there. I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I was thinking of it as a list of problematic behaviors to watch for in oneself.

      1. DK

        Actually, I’m glad you’re asking for examples. A list of these things may well be a good way to combat the idea that racism is only violence and slurs– they’re the little things that we recreate everyday.

        For instance, I find myself giving black people a wider berth when walking past them– and I do it without thinking about it. I have trouble reading Sherman Alexie because I don’t know how to visualize the Native Americans he describes: because my idea of Native Americans (having done zero research on them outside of whatever dregs pop culture gives us) are very much rooted in the noble-Indian/savages imagery.

        To me, more than causing me shame (which I do feel), it serves to motivate me to really learn more about these groups. It’s clear that I don’t know enough.

  4. Jayme Lynn Blaschke

    Ultimately, I believe it boils down to otherness, fear of the other. The same reason some people can’t feel good about themselves unless they’re tearing someone else down. Racism is just (and and I don’t use “just” with the intent of minimizing the harm of racism) a codified and formalized variant of this phenomenon. I suspect the underlying impulse may be hardwired into us–groups of young kids will pick on the one(s) in their midst that differ in some way, which may or may not have anything to do with race. Even if these impulses will always be with us, as a sentient species the least we can do is check the most egregious manifestations.

  5. Joe Iriarte

    As a latino who can pass for “white,” I find I have race and identity on my mind a lot. I think my ramblings are too muddied for me to be able to post anything coherent about it here. I’m not immune from feeling racist; I have thoughts and ideas that make me immediately ashamed. I’ve also gotten grief from other latinos who find me too white for their tastes. Conversely, I often feel like my white friends think of me as “one of the good” ethnics and squirm uncomfortably when I remind them through my words and actions that yes, in fact, I am latino . . . it’s like they have this illusion that my ethnicity is some accident of birth that I never think about, and I am complicit in this illusion at times. On the other hand, should I have to act like a stereotype?

    I didn’t always do this, but in the last year or so I have consciously begun peopling my fiction with latinos, because it makes me sick how the only latinos you ever see in movies are usually the drug dealers, and how the protagonists of most stories are white Americans. I think some of my white American friends see this as an awkward affectation.

    My daughters were adopted as toddlers, and their foster parents were black. We have kept in contact with them, and my daughters have grown up referring to them as Aunt Mary and Uncle Calvin. We’ve gotten together with them at gatherings of their family and ours, and we treat each other like family and make jokes about it. (“I’m Calvin’s distant cousin . . . very distant cousin . . . “) I think the world of them and they think the world of us. But aside from them, I don’t really have any black friends. I hear tons of racists saying “some of my best friends are black,” and I can’t even say that. My best friends, for the most part, are white Americans. Of course I’m a teacher and my main hobby is reading and writing science fiction. I suppose other ethnicities are underrepresented in these areas. Still, it makes me wonder about myself. Almost all the books I read are written by white Americans, and when I listen to music in English, it’s almost all sung by white Americans. (Tracy Chapman being the notable exception.) I think it’s not just white people who need to look inside themselves and wonder at their racism.

    See? I told you. No point. Just rambling. Thanks for providing this food for thought.

  6. Kelvin Kao

    When I first moved from Taiwan to the U.S., I don’t know the difference between whites, Latinos, and Filipinos. In my mind, there are three groups, the Asians (the Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, etc.), the blacks (the people with obviously darker skins), and everybody else. Now I know the differences a lot better.

    I am racist in some aspects, I am sure. That is not to say that I think all black people love fried chicken or all Chinese people eat dogs, of course. And sometimes it’s more than just race. There are other factors. For example, I might think an immigrant from Asia is better at math than a white American. Part of that might be racial stereotype, but at the same time, I also know math and science education is more stressed in certain Asian countries than in the U.S. so it’s really a mix of different reasons. I might also think that black people are better at basketball than Asians. Part of that is media portrayal, part of that might be stereotype again, but let’s also acknowledge that in general black people are taller and more capable of building big muscles. That last part is not a stereotype, but genetics. So, a lot of times, it’s more than one reason, and instead of throwing out all the stereotypes and avoiding them at all costs, let’s look at each case carefully and find out why we think the way we do.

    I am actually colorblind in most areas though. If you ask me who makes the best pumpkin pies, whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, or Martians? I would say, “huh?”

    I don’t know where this comment is going, but I’ll say that I love the “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” song from Avenue Q. “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes; doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes.” I say let’s just acknowledge whatever racist thoughts we have. Not acting them out though, is important. We should all respect one another.

    I also think, no matter what the stereotype and statistics say, there are always exceptions. How do you know the person you are encountering is part of the generalization (by whichever standard) or part of the exception? Judging people on the first sight is inevitable, but let’s also give people second chances to change that impression.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Thank you, Kelvin. Getting the impressions of someone who comes from outside the US is interesting. It’s also part of why I love your puppetry posts, because you know this whole slew of cool stuff I’ve never seen before.

  7. Nancy Fulda

    It’s not just racism. Our brains make generalizations about the most ridiculous things sometimes, from the way someone’s dressed to whether their eyes are crossed to whether they have a speech impediment. I’m a woman with an advanced degree in computer science for crying out loud, and I’m still surprised whenever I meet another woman who programs. It’s not like female computer scientists are a rare commodity these days, either.

    The thing is, generalization is often a good thing, and our brains are highly optimized for it. Imagine how tedious life would get if it wasn’t safe to assume that today’s bus schedule is probably going to be the same as it’s been for the past two years, or if it wasn’t safe to assume that the woman walking up to the blackboard at the beginning of your first day of class is probably the professor.

    It seems to me that the tricky part is coaxing one’s brain to let go of inaccurate assumptions and convincing it that some assumptions should never be made regardless of whether or not there’s statistical evidence to support them. I doubt any of us will ever get it entirely right.

  8. Jeff S.

    These are great comments by all and I don’t know if I have much to add but I would like to relate an experience I had.

    When I was stationed at Great Lakes, Illinois while in the Navy, I got a part time gig in the security dept at Six Flags Great America. Being just north of Chicago, the population of the staff and the guests is very diverse.

    One day I was approached by a guy who started feeling me out about joining a white supremacist organization he belonged to. I very carefully got his name, and took the little pamphlet he passed me which I took back to the Security office and turned over to my superiors with my report. He was very quickly discharged for breaking park policy (not racism, soliciting for outside ventures) and escorted off the property. I felt good about getting him out of there as it could have really caused a major problem if it had continued but I was left with a nagging question in my head. Why me? Had I given an impression that I invited this kind of approach?

    Why did he feel safe approaching me, a security officer? The fact that I’m 6’3″ white, with short hair and have a Germanic last name probably had a lot to do with it but it bothered me quite a bit and I still try to double check myself so I don’t give off any vibe of interest in that garbage.

    I think the comments above about “other” or “generalizations” really apply well to all of us.

  9. Ashley Baldon

    I realize it’s been a while for this post, but I couldn’t resist adding my own thoughts to the mix. It reminded me of the conversation I had with Mary and Doselle at the SFWA event in LA. I read this post a few days ago and took some time to gather my thoughts on this subject. Honestly, I don’t blame people for making assumptions about other races. I would just call these assumptions prejudices. But it is the acting upon these prejudices that makes one racist. For instance, going out of your way to make a comment or to make someone uncomfortable about their race. Some people feel bad once they realize their own prejudice, but that is better than not even realizing or refusing to recognize a prejudice at all. I believe that biologically we are hardwired to make assumptions about the “other,” i.e. the predator. As children in our initial environments we are taught to associate the “other,” as other races. Then as adults these assumptions are further cemented by the media. For example, showing black men as homeless, latino men as gangbangers, asians as doctors or technicians. I notice a lot of this in detective shows and it is upsetting. I have cousins who are covered with tattoos and slick their black hair into ponytails. They work sometimes in Hollywood as actors and are always cast as cholo gangbangers. But they are the furthest from this stereotype as I can think.

    I live in a very diverse suburbia, but the majority of people living here are of European descent. Before, I would say that I didn’t like to have even a single drink if I knew I was going to be driving home late because there is a big chance I’ll get stopped by a cop. Now, I have had to amend this to not wanting to drive at night at all anymore. In my town, I’ve been stopped three times and followed by cop cars more times than I care to count. I should feel protected by cops not scared of them. This is when I feel that prejudice has stepped over the line into racism. There is so much more to say on the subject, but that is my personal experience with prejudices.

    I feel that one way to deal with it is to not have stereotypes reinforced so heavily in television. For many who don’t have interactions with people of other cultures, television is their primary learning tool about the, “other.”

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