Friday, September 23, 2016

Confessions of a Racist

I remember the first time I realized I was a racist. It was in Mrs. Farley's English class at Allan Hancock College. I don't remember the exact questions she asked that led me to this conclusion, but I realized that I do treat the "others" in my city differently without even meaning to. My group of friends is pretty monocultural (white or mixed-with-white), and when I see young Hispanic men grouped together, I walk by quickly. When I see Oaxocan families at the grocery store, I expect them to be poor and dirty. When I see camo-wearing tramp-stamped parents in our school district, I assume they're alcoholics who only buy processed food and whose children are poorly behaved. 

I never say cruel things to or about these people, and I don't laugh at racial jokes, but I have preconceived notions none the less. I see people who aren't like me as stereotypes before I see them as people, and that is racism. I would not be surprised if my lack of clearly racist behavior toward black people is simply because I only know about 5 black people, none of whom I'm very close to. 

It is not the literal color of skin that causes prejudice anymore. I can honestly say I have no bias against darker skin - basically everyone has darker skin than I do, even "white" people. Prejudice is attached to the culture that we associate with dark skin. Firstly, culture itself is rarely inherently bad. Secondly, racism is so poisonous because it is inevitable that not every person with dark skin is a part of the culture we have decided to see as less-than. Therefore we will certainly be mistaken about others much of the time.

More than once, people who I have pre-judged have been considerably kinder to me than the average white person. White people, myself included, seem to have a habit of "minding their own business", even if speaking up (aka taking an interest in someone else's business) would help someone else. Once, I saw a police officer harassing a Hispanic man in the parking lot of the grocery store. I don't know what the situation was (which was one of my excuses for not doing anything) but it seemed clear to me that the officer was bullying a man who was defenseless in every sense. As I remembered the way I felt watching that scene from a few cars away, I thought, "maybe I should have called the police", followed immediately by a sense of dread and sadness as I realized that black people must feel that every day when confronted with the belief/perception/reality of "who is left to protect me or right wrongs when I can't trust the police to take my side over the harassing officer's?"

To see a problem and do nothing is to become part of the problem. 

This article about "good white people" really struck me. Even though I'm vaguely aware of my underlying racism, I typically think of myself as a "good white person": A person who cares. A person who would never go near a statement about black people that I thought even might be offensive. A person who is culturally aware and globally minded. The author notes, "What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life."

Considering myself "not a part of the problem" by virtue of being a "good white person" isn't doing anything for change any more than openly racist people do. "Being good" is an odd description for sitting comfortably in a system that belittles others while helping me. I don't need to be punished (even by myself) for being white, but being white does mean that I that I have no justification in saying that lack of black nominees at the Oscars is "not a big deal". Brit Bennett, quoted above, continues, "I often hear good white people ask why people of color must make everything about race, as if we enjoy considering racism as a motivation." Lack of equality in places like the Oscars or between the pages of Elle Magazine may not hurt me personally, but I don't get to decide whether or not it has hurt someone else. Along the same lines, I have no right to criticize someone else's protest of injustice, especially an injustice that has cost me nothing.

Enter, Colin Kaepernick. 

I don't know that this will matter to anyone else reading, but I found it very humanizing to learn that Kaepernick is a 28 year old adoptee of Russian and African-American blood. Not in the sense that any other situation would have made him less human, but I find a connection in the fact that he's close to my age and of mixed background and adopted, all situations that I can relate to on some level. 

There are a lot of angles from which to come at Kaepernick's protest (not standing for the national anthem at the football games he plays in), but the thing that I think I admire most about it is that he probably doesn't give a rat's behind what I, or anyone else, thinks about it or what angle we choose to agree or disagree from. What's admirable is that he sees it as a way to bring awareness to a cause that is valuable, and so he protests in a public and high-profile way. That's more than I've ever done publicly for anything I cared about. 

I think that some people question what he has to be upset about, given that he's a wealthy man playing the US' most worshiped sport. If you think that someone can be too rich to protest, you don't understand activism or racism. I find so much hope in the fact that Kaepernick is protesting in spite of his wealth and prestige as a football player. He has a lot to lose in terms of popularity (which translates to money in the NFL) which makes him very brave for protesting. Furthermore, he is inspiring others to join him. I count myself among those others - Kaepernick has grabbed my attention and helped me sort through my thoughts and feelings about my role in America, and that is worth a lot to me.

Another obvious criticism against Kaepernick is that his protest is unpatriotic. To me, protest is patriotism. What sort of patriot can in good conscious glorify an America that has persecuted every imaginable minority since its inception? Personally, I do identify with wanting to distance myself from the current face of America.  Not every use of the national anthem needs to represent everything that has happened in the history of the United States, but I consider it fair that Kaepernick sees the anthem as a representation of an America that has often turned a blind eye on horrors going on beneath its own flag. Patriotism should celebrate the possibility of an America where black people don't feel the need to protest any more rather than perpetuate a history of segregation and unequal treatment. Far be it from me to say that the national anthem is too good to be used as a rallying cry for a higher standard of patriotism.

I read another TCK's (Third Culture Kid) comment - completely unrelated to protest - that really struck me. She said that rather than being proud to be an American, she was humbled to be an American. That encompasses so much of what I feel about America - I am so grateful for the advantages that being American gives me, and simultaneously heartbroken and disturbed that I'm attached to this nation that frequently crushes everything in its path. Yet another friend noted on Facebook, "if something hurts one part of the body, it hurts the entire body". By this logic, how can remaining untouched by racism against black people be anything less than racism on our own parts?

Yet another criticism of Kaepernick: "what is he actually accomplishing?" I touched briefly before on the fact that his protest has already changed me in some way, and I consider that a triumph on his part, but there's more to it than that. To ask, "who cares" or "why bother" is missing the point completely. There need not be an airtight plan of action before one decides to say, "enough." This is over quoted, but the definition of insanity is to repeat ones actions over and over, expecting different results each time. Yes, the Civil Rights movement was important and made things better than they had been, but are we really about to tell the current generation to stop whining because our grandfathers already fixed this? If previous steps have fallen short, how can the answer be to stop trying to move forward at all? Why is protest only acceptable if it's polite and quiet?

Can you imagine if black NFL players joined together to protest by refusing to play altogether? There would be no NFL without them, and that would sure get people caring. But we don't have to require that kind of organization from Kaepernick. For me, it is enough to respect and support his right to protest in the capacity that he knows and is able to do. The rest will come, because it must, even if it's not organized by Kaepernick.

My dad's initial criticism of  Kaepernick was that he is perpetuating an "us vs. them" mentality which only leads to more tension. I agree that divisiveness is not the end goal, but when we chide people - particularly black people - for trying to stand out, we ignore the fact that by doing so, they inevitably end up being swallowed by the "us" rather than us reaching out and joining "them". 

I like to think that in talking through all of this with my family, Kaepernick changed my dad's mind too. My dad said that he realized that in his own life in America, he's never been treated in a way that made him feel unsafe to be American or feel that his country not only failed to protect him, but even persecuted him for part of his identity. But Kaepernick has. 

Consider this: if you disagree with Colin Kaepernick's stance, what issue would you personally feel it was appropriate to boycott by not standing for the national anthem? If you can think of nothing, then thank God for how privileged you are. If you can think of something, be aware that lack of accountability for police officers in their dealings with black civilians is that issue for Colin Kaepernick, and we would be sorely offended to have him tell us that our issue did not warrant protest.

I find it endlessly frustrating when yet another shooting occurs (be it a mass shooting or a black man killed under suspicious circumstances) and everyone says, "this has to stop". I mean, DUH. But what does saying that accomplish? It's not like there's a critical point at which enough statements of "stop it" make it stop. I suppose it's better than not publicly decrying violence at all, but I think it's empty for me personally to say "this has to stop" if I don't follow that up with trying to do something.

Thus far for me, "doing something" has simply been realizing that I'm more sheltered or biased than I thought. Not maliciously, but none the less, blind to cultural nuances that give me an edge while shutting others out from being a part of the American "us". 

As much as I find satisfaction in posting on Facebook about my displeasure over racial injustice and calling for it to end, 
what good does it do if I don't consider myself to be part of the problem? I do not think that anyone that reads what I have to say was sitting around hating black people but then decided not to because I said so. It is in thinking that it's everyone else's problem that we become part of the problem. 

I AM the problem. YOU are the problem. Stop being a good white person and start being a conflicted white person. Maybe even sit for the national anthem and say, "I believe we can do better than this." 

{images: 1, 2}

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. You echo so many of my thoughts as I muddle through my own privilege and heartache. Thoughtful conversations like this one seem like an important first (next?) step in the journey towards equality and peace.


Related Posts with Thumbnails