I’m asking because I truly want to know. I’m asking because it seems to me that the obvious answer, the text book answer, and the dictionary answer leave much to be desired when it comes to the real-world answer. I’m asking because I’m curious about the real-world answer. Answers based in experience. Answers based in a desire to share, teach and have deep, quality conversations aimed at allowing me to see through another’s eyes into a world that I have no comprehension of — and never truly can because of a happenstance of my birth.
I’m asking because I am a part of a diverse discussion group in which there is a claim being made that because I am white therefore I am racist. And that’s exceedingly hard to hear because of the hatred and disrespect that I associate with the word “racist”. And its exceedingly hard to hear because blanket generalizations like that, in my opinion, are damaging to all. It makes me wonder too, how is labeling others “racist” simply by the color of their skin not, in its own way, a racist thing to do?
And yet, I am willing to explore the landscape of my own assumptions, generalizations and experiences. I am willing to explore because I recognize that there is a view behind the accusation that I have not yet seen, not yet experienced, and may not fully have access to. I am willing to explore because if it IS true — if I am racist — I want to do the work within myself to grow beyond it and maybe in so doing, leave the world a little better than I found it.
For me, racism equates to gross generalities about a group of people; generalities based in hatred, disrespect, misinformation, and fear. But from the discussion forum, I’m gathering that there’s more to racism than that.
Growing up, I lived in a racist home and I knew it. It was ugly and disgusting to me to watch the look on my step-father’s face when he talked about “them”. And in his world, anything other than a white male was some form of “them” for which he had a degrading slur for.
I grew up being taught that white women were second-class citizens and there for men to objectify. A beautiful woman was a “seat cover” if she was driving a car. An ugly woman was “a waste of space”. If a woman wasn’t being an object or a servant to a man, there was no purpose to her existence. I remember being blatantly told that I would need a man if I was going to BE anything in this world — as if, without a man, I simply would not exist. And truth is, in my step-father’s eyes, I think he believed exactly that.
My brother and I knew which friends NOT to bring home after school. For me, it was about protecting my friends from the level of hatred, anger, and venom that lived in my household. I went on a few dates with a boy whose father was Iranian while I was in high school. Before he met my parents, I told them I was bringing a guy home. They asked his name. I told them. Their reaction was, “How dark is his skin?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked. They tried to tell me it was about wanting to ensure I was safe because some cultures treated women differently.
“And what does that have to do with skin color, exactly?” I asked. “Plenty of white men treat women badly too.” They had no response. It made me angry.
So, I strove to get to know people. I strove to only judge others based on their actions and who they, themselves, chose to be. I strove to never generalize, judge or allow a bad experience with one person to make me think worse of others who might share similar visual characteristics.
And yet, I wonder: Am I still racist?
I recall one particular bus ride in my early 20s. It was the 1990s in Portland. Gangs were active. Wearing the wrong pair of shoes could get you killed no matter what color your skin might be. Wearing the wrong colored jacket or shirt in certain parts of the city would get you shot. Skin heads at our high school bullied everyone. If you didn’t want to get knifed, harassed, beat up or otherwise harmed, you kept your head down and stayed out of certain places. We knew this not because of the media — which, of course, didn’t help — but because of personal experiences. And yet, I believed I’d gotten past my fears and past the racism I was surrounded by at home.
Until that bus ride anyway.
I’d wanted to head home. I’d never taken that particular bus before. I didn’t realize it was going to go through “those” parts of town in order to get there.
First, I became aware of the street names and the direction the bus was going, and I got a little nervous. Then, I began to notice the demographics of the bus changing. It wasn’t long before I was the only white face on the bus. As I looked around, I saw others looking at me, singling me out, wondering why I was there. Every person who got on the bus saw me, watched me, and I saw looks I could not interpret pass through their eyes.
I was hyper-aware that I stood out, that I could not hide, and that I was different — and that difference had the potential to be dangerous. It occurred to me at one point that this is what it must be like for every one of my friends of color to sit in a white classroom, take the bus, or go anywhere else that’s not their home.
And then I looked more closely at the people around me. There were people my age with backpacks, obviously going to school just like I was at the time. There were mothers with children. There were adults of every age who were obviously getting out of work, tired, and ready to be home. I did not see one individual who wore gang attire on that bus that day, but I watched for it.
To be honest, I was grateful when we got through “that” part of town and the demographics began to change again. And, I was aware that maybe, as hard as I tried, I still had more than a little subconscious judgment going on inside.
Is that racism? Yes.
But that was in my 20s. I’ve grown. I’ve learned. I’ve continued to strive to confront that part of me, to not judge, not hate, and not make generalities or assumptions about others.
And yet, whether I like it or not, I still have a side of me that stiffens slightly more with some than others. It’s not always race however, and it’s not always about my thoughts about them — that I’m aware of. Sometimes I stiffen up because it’s a white man that just walked in and I’m a bit leery of unknown males (too many abusive ones as a child in my life). Sometimes, I stiffen up not because of fear, but because I can tell someone’s different from me and I feel utterly inadequate. I’m afraid I’ll say something innocently enough but wind up offending them without realizing it because I don’t know what I don’t know. And, I’m not sure where to even begin.
There are issues and ideas I want to discuss. Some people are more open to discussing them than others. Some are able to discuss them more politely than others. Some have been so judged for so long they don’t realize how angry and defensive they’ve become. I don’t blame them, but it is difficult to have a discussion with them.
Am I racist?
To me, saying that everyone within a particular group is “x” is a form of judgement. If it’s about race, it’s racism. Those of color in the discussion forum who’re stating that all white people are racist are also claiming that it’s NOT racist to say so simply because white people have more privileged than others and that there is not such thing as “reverse racism”. Are they right?
I am painfully aware that I have a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do. Up ‘til now, I have not considered myself racist. I certainly don’t do the things my step-father did. But, I’m willing to consider the possibility that how I see myself, and I am seen by others, is vastly different. And, I’m willing to accept that being “racist” does not have to look or feel the same as it did when I was a kid in order for it to still be true. In fact, as I look around my city and watch the discussion in the forum, I recognize that it is NOT the same.
Racism has changed. It appears to have gone underground — at least in my part of the country anyway. Which, in truth, makes it that much more insidious and difficult to eradicate. But, if these people of color are accurate in their description that “all white people are racist” and “reverse racism doesn’t exist”, can racism itself BE eradicated?? If not, what then?
Skin color is an accident of birth for all of us. And NO ONE can walk in another’s shoes and pretend to fully understand their experience. NO ONE. And yet, we live at a remarkable time and place in history where we have the opportunity to evolve ourselves — individually and culturally — into something amazing, beautiful, and inclusive.
Personally, I’m not interested in homogenizing. But if racism is so inherent that it can’t NOT exist within me simply because I am white, how do I do my part to both be included in the future for who and what I am (because I am a person worth being included too), without inadvertently erasing another (because they’re equally worth being included)?
Am I racist? How do you define “racism”?
If I am racist, what makes me so?
And, how can I be and do better — even though I cannot change my skin or how others might treat me because of my skin?
I’m asking because I truly want to know, learn and understand. And in that spirit, I invite thoughtful, respectful discussion.