Holy Moses I have been deceived
Holy Moses let us live in peace
Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease
There’s a man over there what’s his colour I don’t care
He’s my brother let us live in peace
Border Song, lyric by Elton John
(c) 1969 Dick James Music Ltd. 1969
I cannot be a racist. I am not from the South. (Not that everyone from the south is a racist.) I grew up in desegregated schools (my father was in the military); I had black friends then, as I do now. I have never uttered the “n” word.
I cannot be a racist. Or can I?
I recently read an essay called I, Racist, by John Metta, that made me re-think my smug attitude.
As the soon to be maligned Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You really don’t know someone until you see things from their perspective.”
This, I think, is what the Confederate flag controversy is all about. The flag’s defenders insist the flag has nothing to do with racism; it’s all about heritage. African-Americans, on the other hand, see the flag as a symbol of oppression and racism– and with good reason. (Note: I’m going to use the term black instead of African-American because it’s easier to type. Plus, Metta uses it also.)
Back in college, I remember seeing a black student (they were few and far between) and thinking, what’s it like to be surrounded by only white people? What’s it like to rarely see anyone who looks like you? I honestly didn’t know what it would feel like. I still don’t.
I’ve tried to imagine myself as the only white person among a group of blacks, but I don’t think it’s the same thing at all. As John Metta says,
Racism is the fact that “White” means “normal” and that anything else is different.
That hit me like a ton of bricks.
The basic premise of Metta’s article is this:
White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race [because] black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.
I think he’s right. As a white person, I’m not subject to racism; it doesn’t impact me personally so I don’t see it in the subtle ways it is usually displayed. But a couple of things happened recently that gave me a glimpse of the black person’s perspective.
But first, I have to make a confession. I assumed that black people were targeted because they did something to attract attention, either they were acting suspiciously or were dressed like a thug. Most of my black friends are professionals like me so I assumed they were treated the same as white professionals. After all, all money is the same color, right?
Metta says white people don’t experience racism, so it’s not real to them. (Don’t dare try to talk about reverse racism. White men still have most of the power and money in the U.S. When was the last time you saw a middle age white man followed around a store because the owner was afraid he might steal something? I’m guessing never.)
A few months ago, a former colleague posted something disturbing on her Facebook page. This woman is a professional; she went to UVA and has (or soon will have) a Ph.D. Now, I know it shouldn’t matter what her credentials are, but it makes my point. Anyway, she posted that she had taken her daughter to the dentist and when they sat down in the waiting room, a white woman got up and moved across the room.
Are you sure it was because you are black, I asked? Maybe the lighting was better over there?
No, she assured me. First, the area the woman moved to was more crowded. And second (and sadly), she had experienced this before and knew racism when she saw it.
Then, an acquaintance, who is a partner at a major law firm, mentioned that he had to have “the talk” with his sons. No, not that talk, the other one. The talk about how to act appropriately when stopped by the cops for DWB. What? Since when do drug dealers wear Armani suits?
Finally, I had lunch with a good friend and former colleague. She’s a professional like me, but her credentials are far superior to mine. She graduated from high school at 16. She has both a J.D. and an MBA. She speaks French and Spanish fluently. And to top it off, she was a beauty queen.
She would never be subjected to racism, right?
We had lunch in a restaurant I had been to many times with my husband. We were waited on by the same waitress I had been waited on several times before. This waitress wasn’t the most personable of people, but she was efficient.
On this day, however, it dawned on me that she did not want to wait on us. At all. I thought perhaps she was in a bad mood, so I watched her interact with other customers; she wasn’t acting the same way with them. Just us.
Was I making this up? I wasn’t sure because her actions were rather subtle. Had my friend noticed this? I was afraid to ask. What could I say? The waitress would just deny it, wouldn’t she?
I didn’t say anything.
The waitress brought our check before we had finished eating. That’s when I was sure something was wrong. My friend smiled at her sweetly and said, “I believe I would like some coffee.” It was only later that I thought, I’ll bet my friend did see what was going on and that’s how she dealt with it. My friend was not going to be pushed around.
I’m mortified about this. How dare that waitress treat my friend shabbily just because of her color? I thought as a society we were past all that. Obviously, we are not.
As a white person, what am I supposed to do? Presumably I don’t exhibit racist behaviors; at least I hope I don’t. I’ll have to watch myself more carefully. But what else can I do?
Metta offers this suggestion (more like a challenge):
White people are in a position of power in this country because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them? So I’m asking you to help me. Notice this. Speak up. Don’t let it slide. Don’t stand watching in silence.
I won’t presume to say I now understand what it’s like to be a black person in a white society. All I’m saying is what blacks have been trying to tell whites forever—racism is alive and well. In some cases it may be subtle, it may be nuanced, but it’s there. And we can do something about it.