I’m A Racist, And So Are You

Speaking honestly, I’m a racist. Most of my friends wouldn’t say as such, and after reading this you might think I’m being too harsh. Nonetheless, I am a 31-year-old (as of this writing), multi-ethnic, pale white man, and to an extent, I can be racist.

What about you? Are you a racist? If the answer is no, are you sure? I’m not talking about someone saying you’re racist — it’s easy for that to blow out of proportion. Strictly in general, are you a racist?

Let’s put aside data, and numbers. When it comes to arguments about prison incarcerations it’s ‘easy’ to look at statistics and point out the disproportionate number of black inmates. Likewise, it’s ‘easy’ to look at statistics that counter those, and then another set of statistics to counter these, and so on and so forth. It keeps going until you find numbers that satisfy what you think is the honest, maybe even logical, perspective. So again, let’s put that aside.

Now don’t fret, because I’m not here to lecture you. After all, no one really likes being lectured. And aren’t we all tired of being lectured anyway? Demonstration on the other hand — practice and nurturing — or stories; they can change everything. So allow me to humor you, and tell you how I know I’m racist. Who knows? You may think of something similar in your life. Remember, it’s almost never one thing. No, it’s a number of small experiences that shape who we are.

Being 31, I had the pleasure of growing up in the 1990’s. No offense of course to generations since and prior. Growing up in that time, I was able to enjoy many great experiences, and one of those was a television series: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Anyone remember watching this? It feels a bit nostalgic to look back and remember the show. It had funny moments with Will and Carlton. And James Avery did an incredible job playing a father and uncle in the show, teaching so much about family — the show was special.

Not to worry, I’m not about to pick on the show. No, but the show makes me remember something else. As a little kid, every day after school I would go to my grandparents house, and I’d stay there until one of my parents were off work to come pick me up. While there, I’d go into the back room, and I’d watch television while doing homework. One show that was on during this time was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

It was a pretty great way to spend the afternoon as a little kid, until it changed. One day, my grandfather went back there to check on me, and saw what I was watching. I remember him being notably upset and irritated. At the time I didn’t think much of it — he didn’t like the show I thought. Well later that afternoon my mom came to pick me up, and my grandfather yelled at her. Not simply raising his voice, no, real anger and admonishment behind it. Why? I wish I could say it was because he thought Will Smith wasn’t funny, but the truth is he didn’t like his grandson watching a “[black] show” on television.

At the time I didn’t understand the situation exactly. When you’re that age, what does it matter if the show had predominantly black actors? I didn’t care. I never watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ever again while at my grandparents though. In hindsight, I kind of wonder how my grandfather would handle having caught me watching In Living Color, Martin, or Living Single — those shows are awesome primetime series, and I watched them all the time. Wouldn’t that have been funny?

Here’s where you’re probably thinking that was nothing. What was the big deal? It was one little incident, right? Well as I said, what you need to remember is it’s almost never one thing. No, it’s many things. Also, it’s the subtle things.

I can still remember so many things from being in fifth grade. It was a good year. I was in the Safety Patrols, and looking forward to the trip when we go to Washington D.C. Soon as I was confirmed for going, I knew exactly who I wanted as my roommate, and that was my friend Craig. Craig was black. I didn’t care though; it was inconsequential. We were best of friends, and like best friends we hung out all the time and talked about everything. Life was good.

Then along came my parents and life wasn’t all good. They had decided that Craig and I wouldn’t be roommates. Since they didn’t ‘know’ Craig, they didn’t feel comfortable with him being my roommate and buddy for the trip. Instead I was put with another buddy of mine, Larry. Larry and I didn’t really hang out in the same circles in school, but his mom and my mom were friends so it was all hunky-dory. Except it wasn’t fine with me. Why couldn’t I buddy with my closest friend? How could they not know him?

Looking back on this memory, Craig was truly such an important part of my life. We fell out of hanging out once we were onto Middle School. Separate middle schools and high schools has a way of doing that to people at that age when you don’t live in the same neighborhood. I wonder though how I may have turned out different by having these thoughts in my head without the counter-balance of a close black friend. It’s all the little details and experiences that shape us.

Remember being in the car when your parents were driving? It’s amazing how many things you can ‘learn’ from what your parents continuously say and do while driving. The things they’ll say, do, yell — these are the things you remember.

Back in the day before automatic locks (actually, even with automatic locks), did your parents ever go down certain neighborhoods and double-check to make sure all the doors were locked and you were buckled in? Which neighborhoods were they? For me it was when going down streets in black communities. We’re not going to discuss crime statistics here, because in my example they were irrelevant — I looked them up.

Anyone growing up in Palm Beach County, FL during the 90’s and early 2000’s can tell you the only street you really needed to care about doing that was Clematis. Except Clematis wasn’t the only street we did that in, and it wasn’t any “white” streets.

Later in life I lived in Orlando, FL, and in Orlando we had Orange Blossom Trail (OBT), and Parramore. You want to guess what I instinctively thought about each time I drove down them? One might argue it’s good parenting that instilled this behavior for safety. Only problem there is, it took years of living in Orlando to limit myself to those two locations. For a long time I did it for several streets. And these were streets I comfortably walked down; including OBT and Parramore. I learned to think this way though.

Speaking of ‘bad’ streets, remember learning about how to tell the better neighborhoods? Perhaps remember that typically the lesser ones happened to have black people. Oh I learned that. No statistics here to debate over, and we don’t need it to. Why? Come on, we know why. It’s because it means when you start seeing black people move onto your street that clearly your neighborhood is going to ‘lose value.’

Honestly, doesn’t that seem silly? Why would you think that seeing a black person on a street instantly means it’s not an ideal place to live? I hope you have an answer because I don’t. I know that I think it, and cannot ever seem to not think it.

As an example, let me tell you about when I moved into a new place I’m renting. I’ve been here about four to five months now. The street seemed nice, the owner was nice; it was good. Then came the day I moved in, and I saw my next door neighbor. I’ll save you the suspense and get to the obvious: he was black. Instantly, without even thinking, my mind thought how this is now a lesser neighborhood. Is there crime here I didn’t learn about? Is the value here less than what I’m paying?

It’s amazing how much a person can think before their conscious mind kicks back in. Sitting here clear-headed, you know what I would say if someone told me that? “Dude, you’re a bit racist.” I had no reason to think any of that. Yet I did. I did because that’s what I ‘knew’ to think.

Want to guess the saddest part? In the time I have lived here, that man was the only neighbor I have gotten to know. His name was Howard — past-tense because he has since moved out. Howard told me what day the garbage truck comes by, the recycling truck schedule, and what time of day the mail gets delivered typically. Howard was a nice guy, who I subconsciously judged without knowing him, and it’s because I ‘learned’ to think that way. It’s interesting what kids pick up and what sticks with them, no?

Going back to what you can learn in the car, everyone knows stereotypes, right? Everyone ‘knows’ Chinese people can’t drive. Everyone ‘knows’ old people in Florida drive like they’re crazy. What about how black women like to drive slow when they’re in front of a white person because they like being able to ‘get back’ at white men? Never heard that one? I’m happy for you, because I’ve learned over the years I’m not the only one who learned this, and it brings me honest joy to know this isn’t widespread. Yet, it’s something ingrained in me — thanks dad.

Think I’m kidding? In the past two weeks, there have been three occasions where I got stuck behind a person driving slow on a road. As I passed these particular vehicles on these three notably memories I noticed something: they were black women. For a brief moment, when I made a face expressing annoyance, I could feel something else. Clawing its way out a bit, was anger. Even if for the briefest moment, I was angry, and my brain thought about what I was taught: these black women were being racist toward me.

Isn’t that ridiculous? I can confidently say I’m smart enough and intelligent enough to realize how completely absurd that thinking is. There isn’t even anything remotely close to statistical data to try and defend this nonsense. Also, allow me to acknowledge there have absolutely been other people in the past two weeks who I got stuck behind and drove slow, and were not black women. At least once a day someone on the road makes me annoyed. In a way that’s almost comforting because it means only three moments out of at least fourteen (conservatively in two weeks) were black people.

Despite all that, I still think it. Even if it’s for a moment and I can catch myself, it’s still there. You can’t simply turn it off and tell yourself to stop thinking this way. It’s programmed, and takes time to get over. And there is no greater proof of that than my dad.

If you’re white, are you willing to say the “n- word” publicly? I don’t mean publicly in the quiet safety among other like-minded people; I mean really publicly. Once upon a time, my dad was willing. He wasn’t alone either. I can recall several adults saying it as I grew up, and each time is stuck with me.

Now here is where the twist comes in. Ready? While I can remember many times my dad said the n- word as a child, I cannot remember a single time he said it by the time I was done with Middle School. You see, my dad learned, and he changed.

The Middle School I went to was in a predominantly black neighborhood, and many students were black. There was no more ‘my one friend Craig’ here. My mom became friends with my Assistant Principal, Ms. Smith. Ms. Smith was awesome, and as you may guess, she was black. She was a ‘school of hard knocks’ type, and about equipping kids for life.

Then of course there were the friends and fellow students my parents met. I can remember my dad saying this one friend was the toughest girl he had ever met. Her name was Deonjala, and she really was tough as nails. Confident, head-strong, funny, smart, and a genuinely good person. I’ve never told her because of how uncomfortable it would make me, but she had a real positive impact on changing my dad.

Isn’t that fascinating? One single kid made an old man in his 50’s see something in a different light. In turn, it had a positive impact on another child who was growing up to think of some things with a racist perspective.

I’ve mentioned a few of the things that are ingrained in me to this day. How much worse though would it have been had it continued? What if I had not gone to school around so many other black people? More importantly, what if I had not grown up watching someone with racist tendencies change?

In truth, it’s one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave me. Thanks to him, I know people can change; I know they can learn and grow and see people as equal. Despite his programmed thoughts and his racial tendencies, he was able to overcome it, and ultimately, be someone who whole-heartedly believed in equality.

So that gives me hope. At the end of the day I know it’s possible to overcome what’s stuck in my subconscious, and the same goes for everyone else out there. It won’t happen though until we can each accept what is already there, gnawing at us from the inside out. I’m a racist, and if you give it some honest thought, you may realize that you are too. And that’s where we start. What are you going to do now?

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