Note: This post is a part of Chris Clarke's Blog Against Racism Day I hope you'll go to Creek Running North so you can check out all of the entries. Looks like there's lots of thought provoking stuff.
It's one thing to accept the fact that we live in a racist culture, it's quite another to admit that you yourself are racist. You will resist this moniker, you will bristle under it, you will come up with a hundred, a thousand reasons why it isn't so. But my friend, I'm afraid it's true. If you grew up in this culture, you can't have escaped it. It's a part of you, no matter how much you've learned to fight against it. It's good that you fight against it, but it's important that we admit these things to ourselves. It's where we have to start.
Raising a child is one surefire way to face your own demons. Bits of yourself come out in your child, things you didn't even realized you'd passed on. When the kidlet was about three my best friend and I decided to go to the Pow Wow that is held every year at Seattle's Discovery Park. It was something we'd enjoyed doing over the years, and thought it would be fun to take the kids. Before we went, I was explaining to the kidlet what it was all about. Due to his age, I kept it simple. I don't remember exactly what I said to him, but I remember that I decided not to use the phrase "Native American." We arrived at the park and left our cars in the large grass lot and started the relatively long trek to the entrance of the Pow Wow. In a little grass clearing off to the side several teepees were set up and some young men were getting into their ceremonial dress. "Look, mommy!" the kidlet called out excitedly, "Are those the Indians?"
I wanted to curl up and die, I was so embarrassed. Embarrassed that I'd taken the quick way out in explaining things to the kidlet, embarrassed that I'd made it seem like we were going to see some group of "others", instead of just people, embarrassed that I was being made to look bad in public. Because I'm not some horrible racist person, I'm a sensitive, liberal, totally PC chick, and I want my props for it. And that's what it boils down to. I want to be acknowledged for all my wonderful anti-racist attitudes, when in fact I'm just like a fish who isn't aware of the water--racism is all around me, and I'm stuck in it, breathing it, part of it, whether I like it or not. And sometimes, I do stupid racist things--not in an overt or malicious way, but I do them all the same. This is not easy to admit.
One day I was riding the elevator down from my office to the lobby. It stopped along the way, and a big, striking, African-American guy got on. I thought he was very good looking. He looked at me and said, "Aww, why do you have to be like that? I'm not going to hurt you." I was completely taken aback. I had thought I was looking at him with an appreciative eye, but his interpretation of my response to him was much different. I stammered a rebuttal, telling him that he misunderstood, and that's not what I was thinking. He wasn't listening, though. All the way down, and even out into the lobby, he kept shaking his head and going on about how tired he was of people making assumptions, and how he wasn't a violent guy. "I thought you were cute..." I attempted, but he walked passed me out the door. It doesn't really matter which one of us was right, the entire encounter was about perceptions, and neither one of us seemed able to understand the other's point of view. Maybe I had looked at him strangely. Maybe my subconscious body language had betrayed something that I wouldn't allow my conscious mind to register.
I have more such stories that I could share. But instead I offer up this confession. I can no longer plead ignorance or immunity; we live in a racist culture and I am racist. I don't want this, I hate saying it, it makes me ashamed, but I can't ignore that it is real. If we can all admit this to ourselves, if we can pierce through our denial, then, perhaps, we've got something to work with.