I will be discussing racism today, and my experiences with it. I am a middle class white person, which means that my perspective is one of privilege. If my attempts to confront this issue in my life are offensive, dismissive, alienating, or, yes, even racist (by the conclusion), please do not hesitate to point out to me those errors.
After my father left the military, his new job required him to travel, so in the year I turned thirteen he spent a lot of time away from home. He did his best to make sure that when he was home, that something special was going on, that he was spending time with me and my sister. One of the outings we took was to the county courthouse so Dad could cast his absentee ballot, since he was going to be in Japan.
It was the first election I’d ever paid any attention to, and the only highlight I distinctly remember is something about Al Gore claiming to have invented the internet– and the Snickers commercial that resulted. When we arrived at the courthouse, something big seemed to be going on. There were buses everywhere, and there were huge crowds of people waving signs and shouting, blocking the doors into the courthouse. We were forced to go around to the back and find our way through the maze of hallways to the election office.
When we eventually made it to the office, there was a long line that wrapped its way through the corridors, and the atmosphere was tense. I could tell that the crowds and the environment were worrying my father– there was an almost violent edge to all the noise.
It took me a while to realize it, but eventually I noticed that the line we were standing in was almost exclusively made up of African Americans, and there were a few people who seemed to be “in charge” wandering up and down the line. Out of boredom, I started listening to the conversations happening around me, and what I overheard disturbed me, even at thirteen. The people in the line had been paid to be there– two women standing near us were making plans to go get manicures with the money they’d gotten after they were done voting. When we got closer to the office door, one of the “in charge” people handed my father a sample ballot; it was pre-marked in favor of the Democratic party, and when the woman handed it to my father, she made a comment about how it showed how he was to vote. My father took one look at it, threw it back in her face, and loudly announced that “he wasn’t there with them.” We ended up having to leave before my father could vote because the people in line focused a lot of animosity toward us.
That was the day I became a racist.
Less than a year later, I turned fourteen and 9/11 happened. I was at homeschool group with other children from church when we got the news. We sat, huddled around an old radio, listening to what was happening. I didn’t really understand the significance of what was going on until we were at a hospital in a waiting room, and I watched the second tower fall. When we found out that it had been caused by radical Islamic fundamentalists, I remember seeds of hatred and bitterness against Islam being planted. Over the next few years, I was taught that it wasn’t just radical fundamentalists– every single Islamic person wanted us all dead. I believed that Islam was inherently violent, that all “true Muslims” wanted to kill Americans. When the Patriot Act passed, I cheered.
After hurricane Ivan decimated the community I grew up in, there was one thing that stuck out to me in the aftermath: it was the first time I remember noticing Hispanics, and they were everywhere. They popped out to me– they were at all of the construction sites, in all of the fields. Where had they all come from? I wondered. I didn’t even realize that the influx was a problem, until I was educated on how Hispanics were stealing American jobs, American resources, that they were coming to this country to “breed our liberty away from us.”
When I went to college, everything I learned reinforced my racism. I was taught about the “curse of Ham,” and that “the blacks” were intended for being a “servant of servants” for all eternity. I was taught that inter-racial marriage, if not outright sinful, was at the very least a terribly bad idea. I knew that “stereotypes exist because, well, stereotypes exist.” Racial profiling was just “common sense.” When Arizona passed SB 1070 the year after I graduated, most of my friends were thrilled, and my alma mater hailed it as a great piece of legislation that would put this country back on track.
During my first year in graduate school, I was in a conversation with Zachary*, a person I had already determined was a “flaming liberal.” He disagreed with me about nearly everything I ever said– and conversations with him were incredibly frustrating. At the time, I didn’t realize it was because every single argument I’d been regurgitating since I was thirteen was horribly awful. I was so completely and utterly blind to my racism, to my privilege. I was arguing that “racism only existed because black people insist on being treated differently” and if they just buckled down and worked hard like the rest of us white people, they wouldn’t have any problems. I capped off everything with the “stereotypes exist” line, and I’ll never forget the look on Zachary’s face.
He was appalled, horrified.
He looked like he was about to vomit.
And suddenly, so was I.
Because, all of a sudden, it hit me, and the experience was like being crushed by a train.
For the next month, any racist thing I’d ever said came back to haunt me. I would be flooded by memories of horrible, hideous things I had said and done. I remembered nodding my head in agreement when pastors visited my undergrad college and talked un-ironically about racial profiling and water boarding. I remembered being annoyed by the very mention of “entitlement.” I scoffed at Affirmative Action. I completely dismissed anyone who claimed to have been oppressed– “marginalization” was a dirty word. I applauded people like Morgan Freeman who wanted us to just stop talking about racism. To make it a non-issue by ignoring it.
But, I was still conflicted, and experiencing dissonance so bad I didn’t know what to do with it. Because, I grew up in the South. My best friend wore the Confederate Battle Flag on every item of clothing. An evangelist who came to our church every year had it sewn onto the back of all his coats. Every truck that passed us in the road had the Browning logo and the Flag, displayed side-by-side. Nearly everyone I knew walked around proclaiming that “The South would rise again!” I sat in revival services where black people were expressly told to leave. I grew up in a town where there was literally a “wrong side of the tracks,” and where no one went anywhere near subsidized housing. And I’d grown up in a place where black people were paid to vote democrat, and black teenagers viciously butchered their white girlfriends, and black men slaughtered white women at construction sites . . . and I had no idea, no ability, to know that white people committed the same kinds of atrocities, they just didn’t end up in the racist newspaper, or covered by the racist news crew, or announced on the racist radio programs.
I’d grown up identifying “black culture” as inferior. It never once occurred to me that the “black culture” I was exposed to, the kind of culture where famous musicians refer to women as “bitch” and “ho”, wasn’t black culture at all, but a style purposely propagated, marketed, and sold, by white people for white people.
I was blind.
I didn’t even begin to realize the depths that racism continued (and continues) to affect me.
Until I became a feminist.
And I started being able to identify how, as a woman in a heavily patriarchal culture, I had experienced oppression and marginalization my entire life. How I had been convinced I was inferior, and weak, and how I’d made huge and significant life choices based on what I believed about myself. And, for a little while, I wanted to be able to say that being oppressed and marginalized myself meant that I couldn’t have oppressed and marginalized anyone else. That I understood what it was like. That I could sympathize.
And I realized that was racist, too.
But we do have one thing in common: we’re constantly told to shut up. To move on. That because women can vote and black people can sit at lunch counters, that we’ve achieved equality. We even have laws forbidding employers and landlords from making decisions based on race or sex. Why can’t we just be happy with that? We have the same rights as every other person in this country.
Legally, maybe that’s true. I’m not convinced that it is.
But, culturally, that isn’t the case at all.