I recently had a conversation with someone who said that he thought that reports of racism were exaggerated in America. Sure, he said, it happens, but not as often as the media is leading us to believe. He also opined that Obama had missed an opportunity to bring the country together by furthering the idea that prejudice is widespread, instead of telling black people to let the past go and stop being angry.
After I stopped gaping speechlessly at him, I talked to him about one of the markers that we live in a racist society.
As a white male, he thought that he hadn’t experienced racism firsthand. In fact, that’s not true. And it’s probably not true for you either. What he had experienced was making decisions based on the racist baggage that is embedded in American society. The marker that’s easiest to spot is this:
- That moment when you decide not to do something racist, because racism is bad.
How is that a marker? Let me use the example that this fellow and I discussed.
He said that he goes out of his way to treat blacks and Latinos fairly, and probably treats them better than whites in an effort to not be racist. The fact that he has to think about it is a sign that he’s inherited baggage, at some point in his life, that says that blacks and Latinos are Other.
His counter-argument was that he has to acknowledge that they are visibly different.
The first thing to note is the use of “us” and “them” language. Anytime you break society into lines like this, it’s a marker that people who are not like you are Other, whether the difference is gender, race, sexual orientation, disability… you name it. While the temptation is to respond that there’s nothing wrong with noting that a person is different from you, what’s telling is when that language comes into use.
For instance: Given the choice of hiring two blondes, one with curly hair and one with straight hair, would you even think about their appearance in relationship to how you treat the candidates? They’re visibly different. At no point would you be likely to think, “Hm… people with curly hair let their hair air dry, so they might be late or come to work with wet hair.”
It’s a visible difference, yes, but not one that causing unconscious Othering reactions.
If I walk in as a redhead, would you think, “I need to be careful not to make any jokes about tempers, so Mary doesn’t think I believe that stereotype about redheads.”
The point is that if you have a moment where you guard against racism, that means that you absorbed the lessons built into our society. Even if you later learned that it was wrong, the imprint is still there. The same way sitting on corduroy will leave an imprint on your skin after you stand up.
If there’s a moment where your lizard brain offers up the racist reaction, “Scary black man walking toward me!” — even if it’s so fast that all you’re aware of is the counter-thrust, “Smile, so he doesn’t think you’re scared of him” — then it is a marker that you’ve inherited some of the racism that’s woven into American society. You’ve since learned that it’s bad, but the imprint is still present. You’ve still been sitting on corduroy.
And here’s the thing… you’re one of the enlightened people, but even you still have that brief inherited reaction. Think about all the people you know who aren’t as smart or as self-aware as you. People who’ve only got the lizard brain reaction. People who cross the street to feel safe, lock the car doors instinctively at the sight of a young man of color, or don’t realize that they only hire people like them.
Racism isn’t over-reported, mostly because it’s so present that people think the markers of it are normal. We haven’t just been sitting on corduroy, we’ve been wrapped in it.