How many times have you heard somebody say “ I am not a racist but,…..”. Fill in the blanks with some mildly racist comment. Examples would be “Those people expect too much” or “They are simply too sensitive”. Frequently I wish I could revise that statement to “I am a racist and ….”. At least it would be honest.
When I was about 8, I became best friends with a girl in my class. We sat next to each other in the classroom and spent many hours playing and chatting. At home I frequently talked about my friend. Several months later, I invited my friend for lunch at my house. We had a wonderful time, playing with dolls and watching T.V. After my friend was picked up by her mom to go home, my mom asked me “How come you never mentioned that your best friend is black?”. I paused, I had no answer, I never noticed that my friend had darker skin than myself. Until my mother mentioned it, it never occurred to me that my friend was placed in a different category than myself. I simply never thought about it. At age 8 I was completely oblivious to people’s race. I can honestly say that at that point I was not a racist because I didn’t notice peoples race. I reacted to people solely based on their personality and behavior. I am not so innocent now. Something happened while growing up.
Don’t get me wrong. On an intellectual level I fully believe that all people are equal and that everybody is equally entitled to all the good things in life. However every once in while a small subtle incident happens where I have to question myself. For example, few years ago I was in San Francisco on a business trip. I was walking around the down town area. A group of 4 young black men where walking past me. They were chatting to each other and laughing about something. I immediately clutched hard onto my hand bag, as if I was afraid they would try to steal it. Later, when I went to my hotel room, I kept thinking “Why did I do that?”. “Would I have behaved the same way if they were white?”. “Did they notice my behavior? Were they offended?”. I know I would be offended if somebody reacted that way to my mere presence. While this is not the kind of racism practiced by the Ku Klux Klan or neo-nazi groups, it is racist nevertheless. It is a more subtle kind of racism. It is subconscious; I don’t do these things on purpose or with the intention to hurt somebody. It just seems to happen and afterwards I ask myself “Why did I do that?”. I call it subconscious racism. When you behave just subtly different in reaction to somebody’s race.
In the Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “
”, there is a story similar to mine. Nelson Mandela was traveling all over Africa attempting to raise money and support for the ANC. He was at the airport about to travel from one destination to another; when the pilot and crew arrived. The pilot was black. Nelson Mandela was struck with a panic attack, he was afraid that the airplane would crash. Intellectually he understood that a black person could do any job as well as a white person, its just that in South Africa he had never seen a black pilot before. Nelson Mandela forces himself to board the airplane despite his fear, he arrives at his destination safely. I reached the conclusion that when you grow up in a racist society some of it seeps into your psyche; no matter how much you appose it. Like pollution in the air, it does end up in your lungs.
Rian Malan, is another South African struggling with his own racism. In his book “
”, he recounts many moving stories. One in particular about a white woman who one day finds a bleeding black man in her own backyard. She takes him to hospital, but the staff at the emergency department ignore the injured man simply because he is black. The woman yells at them and abuses them until they provide him with adequate treatment. The story travels all over town and from then on, whenever a black person is in need of medical care, they show up at her door step, she becomes the ambulance service for the black community despite the fact that she has no paramedic training. She spends many evenings driving bleeding people to the ER and yelling at the staff there to urge them to provide care.
It seems that you can’t ignore racism, you have to face it head on, as long as it is part of our society it is poising all of us. As for me, I haven’t owned a TV set for years, I believe that my TV set was a source of negative stereo types planted in my head. I focus hard on treating each person as an individual.
“I am a racist, but I want to change.”
Here is a letter I got in response to the above post from Hannah. I think it offers a valid counter point of view from the one expressed above. This is an email that made me reflect, maybe the post above is too extreme….I feel conflicted now!. Here is the email.
I enjoy your writing very much. Vancouver is my home town, but not
living there anymore.
I’ve been thinking about the racism thing too. I think the subconscious
racism you describe is just part of the bigger human instinct (or
whatever it is) to categorize things. We need to process all the
information coming at us, and putting it into categories is just what
our brains do.
I think when we first observe something, we try to determine if it is
animate or inanimate, then human or not-human. Then male or female.
Then other things like race, tribe (suggested by clothing styles),
young/old, … Recall how we all get a bit stressed when see someone
and can’t figure out if they are male or female. Or see something in
the woods: is it a bear or a tree stump?
you recount the story of the 4 black guys. Would you have clutched your
purse if it had been 4 black women? For myself (I’m a woman), their
maleness is more important in categorizing them than their colour. If
it was 4 old black men, vs. 4 young black men, would your reaction be
different? You may not have clutched your purse if it had been 4 white
guys, but if those 4 white guys had mugged you, the next time, a group
of 4 white guys approached you, you’d probably have a strong negative
reaction. through experience, I’m not afraid of, or disgusted by,
inebriated older aboriginal men begging on the street. I give them food
or bus tickets, say hello, and tell them to take care of themselves.
However, I’m not sympathetic with sober young white men begging on the
streets here, and inebriated young white men are to be avoided. It’s a
complex reflection of all my prejudices.
I don’t get too hung up on these reactions in myself. I don’t think it
is something to stamp out, even if I wanted to, but I do try to be aware
of how I categorize and prejudge things, what my fear is, and is it a
fear I should listen to. I think we do this to survive, to protect
ourselves, to make quick decisions (fight or flight). We all do it,
prejudging things, categorizing things, in both good directions and
negative directions. Beautiful, well-dressed people are categorized in
a positive way, for example, whether they deserve it or not. People
with glasses are considered more intelligent.
I was in southern US for a few days a couple of years ago. I’d never
been around so many black people before, so it was strange for me.
Especially since many of them were in service positions, and I, the
white person, using these services. everyone down there talked ‘funny’,
and their manners were different, and culturally things were different.
I did get nervous when black men, in a southern accent would say hello,
how are you, to me, a complete (white, female) stranger. (The white men
didn’t do this during my time there.) I didn’t know how to interpret
this. Just being friendly ? or something else …? Can they tell I’m
not from there? is that why they are saying hello to me and not the
other white or black women and men around? I suppose if I had stayed
longer and got accustomed to it all, I would have been better able to
interpret these things and know better how to respond. Being Canadian,
I did try to respond back in a friendly but abbreviated manner, but I’m
sure my confusion/suspicion/fear showed.
Yes, I am a racist, and an age-ist, and a gender-ist and all those things.