One day recently in my office, I was discussing some event with a co-worker, and I happened to mention that someone in the story was a black person. As soon as I said that, the co-worker’s eyes widened a little, and her head whipped around – as if she was checking to see if the coast was clear for me to be making a racist joke. Then, she cautioned me to lower my voice, so as to not be overheard. I said, “But I’m not saying anything wrong.” She was nervous, and told me to lower my voice “just in case”.
I don’t recall the story being related, but I do remember that the description of the person was germane to the conversation, as a descriptor to tell the one person from the other, not in any way that could be construed as derogatory at all. I don’t normally mention the race or ethnicity of people in stories unless there is a point to mentioning it. “He was making a joke about Asians, and his girlfriend is Asian, so she playfully punched him in the arm in protest.” That sort of thing.
I was annoyed about the exchange for a myriad of reasons, and like every conversation about race in America, my feelings were complicated, and hard to parse. I mean to attempt it here, but I will probably blunder through as I try to work through some complex issues. Be gentle.
First, I felt accused of something by her behavior. Am I not allowed to say that someone is black? Or mention that someone is white? “That guy. No, the other guy. No, I’m talking about the white guy standing next to him. Yes, that one.” It’s just ridiculous to have to feel self-conscious about this kind of discussion. When I hear people say that they are color blind, I usually understand them to mean that they do not treat people differently according to their color, or race, etc. It does not literally mean that you can’t tell what a person’s skin color is, or notice the contrast between one person’s color and another’s. If that is so, the entire beauty industry will collapse in upon itself, as foundation and cover-up sales plummet. What is the sense in finding a foundation that matches your skin tone if no one can see it? (I hope that this becomes the new version of the “If a tree falls in the woods” query.)
So let’s just agree on the first premise, that we can all SEE that people come in different colors. Good. Let’s not be silly. I know that my friend Suzanne has beautiful café au lait skin, and my other friend Mike is as dark as ebony. I notice that my friend Viv has olive skin, and that Alicia is porcelain white, like a doll. It’s dumb to pretend we don’t see these things, and that we don’t think about them.
Now, I will venture to say that most of the world does not treat people equally based on race. That is not something that I have researched, because so much of what is “fair” or “equal” is objective. But considering the fact that all of these years after the birth of civilization that we are all conducting tribal warfare on one another is one bit of evidence that we have not learned to wholly love our brothers and sisters. And I know for an ugly fact that during my lifetime, I have seen white people discriminate against black people, in hiring practices, housing, personal life issues like dating, and with ridiculous name-calling and bad joke telling. I’m not proud of having participated in telling racist jokes, but back when I was young, before I knew any better, I laughed at those and other horrible jokes. I didn’t say as many hurtful things as I heard and laughed at, but if we are honest, any middle-aged person, white or black, would probably admit that they had said something disparaging about the other race. We are products of our times, and during the last 50 or 60 years, our attitudes about race and each other have undergone radical change. Not enough change still, because we all have a horrible legacy to continue working through, and the repercussions are still being felt and dealt with.
My own surname is a sorry example of the horrible history of race relations in our country. An elementary image search of people with my surname will show that there is a fair mix of white and black people who have that name. I didn’t think much about that until fairly recently, when I saw the geneology tv series “Who Do You Think You Are?” Seeing black stars learn that their ancestors were slaves was heartbreaking, and learning that at least one white star was mortified and tried to cover up the fact that his ancestors were slave owners, just proved how much our wretched history of slavery still hurts everyone. It occurred to me, in that moment, that since many emancipated slaves took the name of their former masters, that my ancestors may possibly have been slave masters, too. My people may have owned other humans. If you are a white American with enough generations having been here, yours may have, too. Take a moment for that horrible realization to sink in. I have yet to research my family enough to know if this was ever true, but it was a horrifying and humbling thought. It makes me sick to contemplate that.
It made me think again about how there is still a struggle to balance things out here. Horrible crimes against so many people, over such a long period of years. Then, even when freed, the uphill battle to be treated fairly and as equals. The sad fact is that there are still so many people, of various ethnicities, who don’t, in their hearts, feel that black people are equal to themselves. Not because of any particular deficiency, but just believe that their skin color makes them less than. Isn’t that stupid? On the face of it, isn’t it a stupid assumption? Isn’t it ridiculous and cruel to enslave a population, make it ridiculously hard for them to succeed in our country, and then turn around and say that they should be further up the food chain by now, unless their inherent inferiority is keeping them back? REALLY? Do you push a man to the ground, keep kicking a man in the face, and then say he is too lazy to get off of the ground? No wonder there is still seething resentment in the black community. They are still fighting for equal footing, and we see that every day with each news story about a black person killed by police. I know that is a complex issue, and I am really oversimplifying for the sake of not going on for many more paragraphs, but to pretend that there is no correlation in some of the cases between the color of the victim’s skin and the way they were treated is really and truly being in denial.
This is not to say that every person is equal to every other person in every quality. There are people who are smarter than others, more talented, athletic, creative, strong, shrewd, beautiful, charming, etc., etc. There are also the stupid, mean, lazy, greedy, etc. etc. I don’t think every human being is entitled to a medal for existing. There are still things to work towards, ways to best channel your innate abilities to success in whatever you strive to be, and some people will not be good in some endeavors. But shouldn’t our worth in any category begin with the idea that we are fundamentally worthwhile to start with, as human beings? That we matter, and that we are each due basic care and respect? I think we should all be starting on that very basic premise, at the very least.
The pendulum of extremes swings from one side to the other throughout history. In America, we have swung from slavery, to civil rights and affirmative action, to a more middle ground where a biracial man became president, and our children continue to love music born from the trials and tribulations of black culture. There are things we still need to work on, lots of things. Black people have to figure out how to trust again, how to figure out who are their allies. White people have to remind the slower learners in the class that racism is no longer what we should be about, and that people should be judged on their abilities and efforts, not on outdated and bigoted ideas. Black people have to find a way to deal with anger and resentment in a constructive way. I’m not saying “Get over it already”, not by a mile. “It” is still not over. However, black people have to tell the slow learners in their own class that reverse racism isn’t solving anything. White people have to stop acting out of fear and ignorance, and instead with openness and positivity. Black people who are prejudiced against people with darker skin? Oh, I don’t even have time to get into that stupidity. I will never understand.
I am sorry to live in a time where white and black people are still living in fear of one another. At its extreme ends, white people are either heatedly resentful of the advances that black people have made in our country, and are resentful of anything put in place to help balance out the races after years of inequality, or the polar opposite, afraid to even say the word “black” for fear of offending someone. Black people are either ready to see oppression and racism in every word or nod of the head, or are afraid of succeeding in areas once open to whites only, and thereby be labeled as a sell-out by their own race. Underneath all of the extreme positions are fear and rage. It is a depressing schism in a time when there are so many other pressing issues facing the country, and the Earth, that we really need to band together and work on. I don’t even know what to say about the people in the south still fighting the civil war in their heads and openly shouting about the confederacy. There is such a poison there, that I have no idea how to fix those people short of electroshock therapy and years of talking therapy.
For the rest of us, in the middle, maybe we could start by earnestly trying to understand each other. Ask someone if they would be open to talking about race with you. Tell them you are afraid to offend them by saying the wrong thing during the conversation, but you want to understand them as a person, and their understanding of the struggles from their side. I don’t mean jumping on the nearest black person (or white person) and asking them to be the embassador of their race to you. That would be dumb. What if you got the most ignorant person in the world. You wouldn’t want to assume that all white/black people are stupid. Likewise, don’t attack them or be mad at them for asking an unintentionally rude question, or for making assumptions. If we don’t even try to communicate, it will continue to be them and us, instead of all of us, together. It’s not going to get better by not talking about it.
I once had a t-shirt that said on the front, “Racism is an illness” and on the back, “Are you sick?” One of my family members disliked the shirt, because they were afraid of what kind of attention it might bring me. I knew what that meant – they were afraid of what kind of black attention I might get wearing it. In a sense, they were right, because I remember black people, mostly men, stopping me and commenting me on my shirt every time I wore it. Every comment was positive, respectful, and friendly. My relative probably died a thousand deaths seeing that happen in person one day at a mall food court, when a table full of black men called me over to ask where I’d gotten the shirt, because they liked it so much. To my dismay, I no longer fit in that shirt, and it was starting to show its age, but I loved it, because it was my own sort of “Free Hugs” sign, which told people that I was open to have the conversation with them, and hopefully, it made them think about having the conversation with others.
My last thought on this subject, for now anyway, is let’s stop being afraid to talk about this, and don’t be the person looking for offense in everything either. Let’s ALL stop playing the race card – all race cards.