Am I a racist?
Is there anyone out there who hasn’t privately asked herself that question over the past year? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve started to write this blog and then put it away, telling myself that it’s too controversial; it has nothing to do with my writing; I’m too far removed from the places where these bad things are happening. I’m too white.
But isn’t that a form of racism – to feel as if I shouldn’t say anything because I’m white?
If you follow the dictionary definition of racism – “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races” – then, no, I am not a racist. Most of us aren’t.
But a few weeks ago, when I went for a walk and saw a black man just standing on a corner in my neighborhood, he immediately caught my attention. And as I walked on, turning to look back at him, I asked myself if I noticed him because he was black in a mostly white neighborhood, or was it because I’ve lived in this neighborhood for almost twenty-five years and I know he doesn’t live here and it’s not on the way to anywhere and nobody just hangs out on street corners here.
I’m reasonably certain I would have paid just as much attention to any guy I didn’t recognize, standing idly on a corner when he didn’t seem to have any reason to be here.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Trying to distinguish between race and all the other things. When they blend together, everyone points to race as the reason someone is profiled.
I believe police and other people sometimes make incorrect assumptions about people based on race, and I empathize with the stories of people of color who have been stopped unjustly and questioned simply because they happened to be the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.
I can’t know what it’s like to be black just as a straight person can’t know what it’s like to be gay, or a man know what it’s like to be a woman. But I actually know a bit of how it feels to stand out because of my color.
I lived for a year in an almost all-black section of Pittsburgh. I know first-hand what it feels like to stand in a store or a bank and be the only person of your color in the entire place, to have people stop to watch as you walk down the street. When people peer at you, they’re not necessarily being hostile, but it does make you feel hyper-vigilant at standing out so in the crowd. People notice you. That’s an experience most Caucasians in the US have probably not had.
But I also have relatives who have been police officers and I empathize with the fact that they never know what they’re going to walk into when they respond to a call, or stop someone who is acting suspiciously. After all, it’s their job to notice people acting suspiciously. That shouldn’t extend to harassing someone simply because of the color of his skin, but we all know that happens.
So, am I a racist? If we change our definition to being aware of race, I would argue that we all are, unless we’re totally blind and literally cannot see differences in skin color. I notice race, just as I notice gender, hair color, eye color, scars, limps. I’ve been a physical therapist for over twenty-five years. Part of who I am is a noticer of physical characteristics.
Maybe a better, more pertinent question is, does race change how I interact with people? And the answer to that is… no, it doesn’t. But other things do. I don’t use the same language with a factory worker who has no medical background as I do with a corpsman or EMT who knows something about his anatomy. I speak with women differently than I speak with men. I speak with highly educated people differently than I speak with those who barely finished high school.
This topic was first prompted by a review I got a couple of years ago for my novel, Miserere, in which the reviewer thought I copped out for having the “white savior” come to the rescue of one of my characters, a black man named Abraham. That comment really made me think.
When I wrote the character of Abraham, I saw him only as a man in need of healing, after losing the woman he loved and nearly losing his life because of the color of his skin. He wasn’t sitting around waiting to be saved. What he did need was time and friendship.
In my story, he is saved by my main character, a young white girl, but then he nearly sacrifices himself saving her life in return. Those were acts based on their friendship, not a hierarchy of color. I guess some would argue I should have written him standing up for himself without having to wait for an enlightened white family to befriend him, but I beg to differ.
When I moved to West Virginia in 1983, the town I moved to was small, white and closed. There were people who wouldn’t rent to me because I was Catholic, and yes, they asked. At the time, a local court case was raging in which a white kindergarten teacher was fighting the loss of her job because she’d been accused of being transgendered (though they didn’t use that word back then). I never met her. I don’t know if she was trans, or just a butch dyke. What I do remember very well is the feeling of paranoia as people openly and very hostilely stared at me as I walked down the street. There was very much a witch-hunt atmosphere at the time.
What those experiences have taught me is that there comes a time when members of a minority have to stand up for their rights, but the opinion of the majority is not going to change until a few members of the majority cross the line to stand with the minority and say, “This isn’t right and we’re not going to pretend it is.” And until that happens, the mob mentality of the majority is not going to be altered by the protests of the minority. This is true no matter what the struggle: women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and, more recently, the fight for marriage equality. The fight only gained momentum and wider acceptance once the members of the minority weren’t the only ones speaking out.
I recently served on a grand jury. As I listened to the police officers present their cases, I found myself listening and was a bit surprised that, with the exception of the cases with Latino-sounding names, I had absolutely no mental image of the suspects. Race didn’t enter into my thought process at all. What was very clear, and it reinforced what I have long believed, is that the vast majority of the crimes in question took place in poor parts of town – parts I would never want to be caught in.
My city and the surrounding county doesn’t have a huge African-American population, but it does have a lot of what would be called “white trash” and we have a large Latino population. I firmly believe that socioeconomic status – not race – is the common ingredient when talking about crime and drugs and lack of family stability. Obviously, that’s not universal. Kids from affluent families can get into trouble, but not with the same frequency.
I think the question of racism must reach beyond pretending we don’t notice those differences in color, because they influence too much of who we are. It’s a matter of pride to me that I’m Irish, just as I know that being black is a matter of pride for most African-Americans, and people of Latino ancestry are proud of their roots. Experiencing different cultures, cuisines and customs is an exciting thing. The differences can’t be washed into homogeneity without erasing that sense of pride in where we come from.
What we can do is try not to let how we treat others be determined by things like race or gender or sexual orientation or religion. And speaking of religion, please excuse this blog for not extending into the anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic aspects of bigotry, but this already felt big enough to make my head explode.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, thank you. I sincerely hope I haven’t offended anyone, but if we don’t talk about this, we can’t fix it. If you decide to offer a comment, please be courteous. It’s my blog and I will delete any inappropriate comments.