I am a 53 year old, white, suburban, middle class, male. I am also a racist.
Now, by “racist”, I don’t mean that I believe that one race is superior to others. My racism is more subtle. As such, it’s more insidious. I am racist in the sense that I have lived my entire life in a society that culturally, economically and politically gives me as a white male advantages that someone of color is not given. My racism is grounded in my unquestioning enjoyment of those privileges and the understanding that they come to me simply because of the color of my skin. I come upon my racism honestly, but not accidentally. I’m not proud of it in any way, but it’s built within me and at times, I have willingly embraced parts of it.
I have lived my entire life in suburban California. Race was not an issue in the house I grew up in. It was a subject that simply never came up because it didn’t need to. No one ever seamed to give it a thought. The first time I met a black man was in kindergarten. My dad was a car salesman and my mom was a substitute teacher. On days my mom worked, my dad had the responsibility of picking me up from school and taking me back to work with him. My dad never picked me up. Instead, he had Johnny do it. Johnny was a large black man who washed cars at the dealership. On days that my mom worked, Johnny picked me up from school. I can only imagine the look on the school secretary’s face when Johnny first walked into the office and said, “I’m here to pick up little Ricky.” There were no black kids in my class. There were no black kids in my school. There were no black teachers. Johnny was probably the only black person within a three mile radius of my school on that day in 1969. In spite of all that, I was called out of class. Johnny flashed me a smile, took my hand and walked me out to the tow truck. He lifted me onto the seat and we left. As a five year old, I was more fascinated with Johnny’s gold front tooth than the color of his skin. (I can’t even begin to imagine what this experience was like for him.)
In junior high, I made my first black friend. We shared a table in the library every day before school. We never actually spoke to one another, but we nodded. I read about the life of Joe Namath and he read a real book, one with chapters. I intuitively knew he was much smarter than I was. Aside from my literary friend, my exposure to issues of race at that time was limited to what I saw on T.V. I was sophisticated enough as a twelve year old to know a few things:
I knew that Huggy Bear was not a positive representation of a black American male.
I knew that Good Times was based on a truth I didn’t understand. Happy Days was more my reality.
I was glad for George Jefferson when he was able to, “Move on up to the East Side.”
I watched Roots! What a watershed moment for race relations in America. I learned that even the dad from the Brady Bunch and Sandy Duncan could be racists. That was awful. But also, it was a story from the past. The mini-series taught me a lot, but it did not resonate with my personal understanding of the world.
High School broadened my experience a bit. I learned about slavery and the civil rights movement. Again, these were events from the past. I couldn’t relate to them. I watched the handful of black students I saw struggle to navigate their way through a predominantly white high school. Some of these folks were my friends- we never talked about it. I had no teachers who were black. No black families moved into my neighborhood. I got a job working at the car dealership. As a sixteen your old, I now washed cars alongside Johnny. For me, it was a way to earn a few bucks after school. For Johnny, this was his livelihood.
As a liberal minded college student, I was thankful for all I was learning and honestly felt that I had a pretty good handle on the race thing. I wrote papers on the plantation economy of colonial Virginia and the biased incarceration rates of African-American males. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and was aware that Martin Luther King wrote a powerful letter from his Birmingham jail cell. I grew increasingly appalled at the ways blacks had been mistreated throughout history. At times, I even got angry. But still, this was the history of another people. It wasn’t my experience. It wasn’t me.
In adulthood, my circle of friends has grown to include a number of people of color. I have enjoyed very much the opportunity to hear small snippets of their life experience, but a real discussion of race has rarely taken place. I have grown in my understanding of such things a bit. I visited Memphis and stood bellow the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot. My reverence for the place even allowed me to be able to resist buying a beer cozy in the museum gift shop. I even took a humanitarian trip to Africa. I felt they needed my help to do something that they were actually more than capable of doing themselves. (It’s occurred to me only recently, the colonial mindset I was actually perpetuating.)
In the past year, I have found that I have gotten pretty good at recognizing certain aspects of racism, especially in others. It started with the debate over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. I was quick to jump into any discussion regarding the history of the flag and how its continued use perpetuates racial problems. The confrontations of white police officers in cities such as Ferguson and Cleveland, intensified that debate and I became quick to recognize the racist tendencies in those folks with whom I was arguing. I was much, much slower in recognizing the faults in my own thinking by acknowledging the inherent biases I bring to discussion.
The events of the last week or so have caused me to take a step back. Up until this week, I had a limited recognition of the deplorable state of race relations in the United States. I felt free to state my opinion and argue my points. I did so with the honest belief that things were improving. I thought we were getting better. I am no longer confident of that. Not only is the racial divide in this country getting wider, it’s fracturing into smaller and smaller subgroups. Each of these groups have their own grievances and biases. We can’t even agree that Black Lives Matter. Rather than listening to the stories of systemic racism that African-Americans deal with every day that sparked the movement, the response has been to be offended and point out that All Lives Matter (duh). The ability to listen to one another is absolutely missing. We are not having a conversation. There is no give and take. There is only anger, yelling and posturing. This is an environment that can only breed greater division and violence.
Reflecting on all this has forced me to consider my own place in all of this. My conclusions are not flattering. I have lived the first fifty years of my life happily being part of the problem, not the solution. My racism is not overt, it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s even couched honest attempts to be empathetic and inclusive. I am racist is my willful ignorance of the world around me. I am racist in the limited perspective from which I view history. I am racist in the assumptions I make about the people I interact every day. I am not proud of my biases. I am ashamed of my assumptions. My guilt is a hard pill to swallow.