Just a little bit racist

A few months ago, the doorbell rang at my parents’ house in New Orleans. I was in town working with my co-author and former student, Mary. We are collaborating on a book that explores themes of race and class.

I opened the door to a cop. “Everything ok?” he asked.

“A concerned neighbor called saying no one is supposed to be here. Saw some people walk out of the house,” he said.

“Everything is just fine, officer,” I replied. I told him that I was the homeowners’ daughter and that my co-author, her boyfriend, and their toddler had just left the house. He told me to have a nice evening.

The door closed and questions ran through my head. Why would a neighbor call concerned now? I had been in and out of the house all day. Why had no one called the cops when my white friend showed up that same night? I wanted to find a logical, uncomplicated answer. But my stomach was unsettled because I knew the answer. Mary and her boyfriend are black and it made someone in my parents’ mostly white neighborhood uneasy.

The next night, Mary and her boyfriend came over for dinner. My heart nearly broke when Mary timidly asked, “Can you walk us to the car? We don’t want anyone to think we’re doing anything wrong.”

My parents’ neighbor wasn’t carrying a torch at a rally in Charlottesville. This action wasn’t blatant racism. In fact, the motivation for the phone call was likely stored in a good place. The neighbor was looking out for my family, after all. But wasn’t this action just a little bit racist?

Some instances of racism are harder to detect.

This recent experience was one of those moments. It left me wondering, what can well-intentioned white people do about the day-to-day moments that perpetuate racism?

In the film, I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin says, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.”

What it comes down to is confronting our racial anxieties. According to The Perception Institute, racial anxiety refers to “the heightened levels of stress and emotions that we confront when interacting with people of other races.” Fear is at the root of anxiety, which is caused by the belief that something or someone is threatening.

But what if that belief is wrong or manufactured? The neighbor experienced fear by the sheer presence of a black family outside of my childhood home.

In day-to-day life, how can we better address the racial biases within ourselves? Have you ever called something “ghetto”? Do you typically swipe left on people of color on dating apps? How many people of color are you friends with? Have you ever clutched your purse a little tighter when a black man passes you on the street?

When I first started teaching in New Orleans and drove through my students’ all black neighborhoods, I noticed a visceral discomfort in my stomach, a display of racial anxiety. Instead of avoidance, I continued to go back. Soon enough, I found myself watching a Saints game and eating jambalaya in the living room of a student’s house, like my family did on Sundays. After several positive experiences, I started to feel at home.

We don’t need to randomly drive around neighborhoods and knock on doors. But we do need to question our gut reactions and unconscious biases when race is present in our interactions. The experience with my neighbor is a proxy for the unintended consequences of acting on our racial anxieties. We need to do the equivalent of pausing before we pick up the phone. We need to reflect before we act or speak. My neighbor could have asked: would I feel the same way if I saw an unfamiliar white family walking out the door?

As white people, the solution begins with an awareness of racial anxiety and a willingness to evaluate our individual behaviors and biases. As Shankar Vedantam once said, “Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.” No one is perfect, but we certainly can push ourselves to be a little bit better.