Racism: The Great Undead
It’s ok white liberal friends, I thought, people have certainly by now learned that blackface is wrong. Certainly, by now they can comprehend the stabbing ironies of dressing up as the people their ancestors drove from their homes and infected with rampant, incurable diseases or slaughtered in greed-driven wars or intellectually, spiritually, and artistically paralyzed out of stubborn self-righteousness. Certainly, I thought, by now, we have at least gotten over such obvious forms of racism.
And then my neighbor came out of his house in a Peshawari topi. In that moment, I was so excited to see the hat my uncles wear atop their bald heads to ward off the winter wind appear beside me in DC that I shrieked with the glee of someone seeing a long lost friend: “That’s the hat of my people!”
And then I realized that my people were being made a spectacle for an audience of unsuspecting toddlers-turned-lawn-gnomes and infants-a-la-ladybugs. And then I realized how frightening an EPA-scientist-with-both-of-his-ears-pierced-and-big-nerd-glasses-plus-too-tight-jeans can be.
And then I realized that I was trying to talk myself out my own outrage:
He probably didn’t intend to hurt people in countries where that hat is worn with his costume of “faraway-person-in-a-funny-hat.” I’m sure he didn’t even stop to think of how many Afghan men who used to wear Peshawari topis are no more because of American designs in their country. Certainly, it never occurred to him how many kids in Northern Pakistan would dress up as American drones if they were asked to be something scary for a day. There’s no way he chose his costume because he actually thought people who wore Peshawari topis were scary due to persistent portrayals of Muslims in the media as terrorists.
It’s easy for me to make excuses for racism than it is for him to realize all the many reasons that he might be, well, a racist. Even as I write that I think in my head, “Dude’s probably not really a racist.”
When does that shift occur? How many inches must tectonic plates crawl before there’s a quake? When does someone go from being a person who does something racist to being a person who is a racist?
We wouldn’t call someone who tells one lie a liar. We would, however, call a person who murders one person a murderer.
How many seemingly innocent racial sleights push one over the edge into that dark, dead place from which few return? The road seems to get longer by the day.
That’s because we tend to tell the story of racism in America like its a fairytale even though it’s more of a ghost story.
The way we tend to tell it, we’ve slain the monster of racism and now live in some post-civil rights, post-racial happily ever after where people can claim Confederate flags are culture and cornrows are fashion.
What we should really say is that the ghost of racism still lurks these woods — and not only on moonless nights.
Most Americans live their lives wanting to believe that racism is dead. That’s why they’re are so unnerved when it rises up. Why they never expect it — and are always so ill-prepared to combat it. That’s why it’s so very scary when we see it face-to-ghostly-face.
The truth is that we can only participate in this collective myth that racism is dead until proves to us otherwise.
It comes to haunt us when there’s blood on the streets. It’s dead cold until some politician says the sorts of words which it force it to rise from its shallow grave. Until a neighbor pulls on a hat someone gave him from a trip to Afghanistan and decides it’s a good enough costume.