On being racist…

I wanted to write about being racist and I put together a long, well crafted rant on it after the Zimmerman verdict. I polled a couple of people on it before I published and then I let it rest in my drafts box for a couple of days, something I don’t do often. Later that day, I was driving through the Austin neighborhood on my way to my Doctor’s office, trying to get the thread of what I wanted to say, what I was feeling, what I was thinking.

“Why am I nervous?” I kept thinking. It was the middle of the day, I was in my car, the people who were walking around were living their lives and pushing strollers and buying groceries and coming home from work. What would I be nervous about?

It occurred to me then- I am a middle-aged, middle income white woman living in a large, sweaty, greatly populated, racially diverse midwestern city. “I am racist sometimes,” I thought.

But am I?

A wise online friend who knows about these things tells me that racism is prejudice with power. As  a middle aged, middle income white woman I may not have quite as much power as some but I do have substantially more than others just by the nature of my position in life and yes, also because of my skin color.

So I’m going to be brave and just say it out loud. There are a great deal of times during which I am racist. I am reluctantly racist, but I am racist. In my heart and my head when I feel safe and secure behind my keyboard, typing good words and making sound arguments it’s easy for me to say that I love my black sisters and brothers. It’s easy for me to say that everything is going to be alright. It’s easy for me to talk about overcoming my racist judgments. But in real life, when I am bombarded with fear and uncertainty, when the rubber hits the road, I know I choose the fear too often.

But why?

Driving through the Austin neighborhood I sat at the stoplight and I took a moment to really look at the people populating the streets in the sweltering July heat. Why would I be nervous? Because I heard on the news I should be nervous? Because there are shootings here sometimes? Because I’m the minority here?

I got into a Facebook argument with someone after the verdict, which is something I regret, because it never goes well and because I said some stupid things through the fog of rage it brought up in me. The statement was an implication by someone that if Trayvon Martin had behaved differently, knowing that he was going to be viewed as suspicious, if he’d just cooperated with George Zimmerman that he would probably still be alive today. The person went on to tell about the many times he’s had to “handle himself” in unknown neighborhoods differently, defensively, to preserve his life. I could not pinpoint in that moment WHY exactly these things were not equal except to say that the FB guy was an upper to middle class white guy walking in a bad neighborhood that was not his own and Trayvon Martin was a black kid walking in a reasonably good neighborhood that was not his own.

And that makes quite a difference.

It struck me as I mulled this stupid Facebook argument while driving in what the news and the lore tells me is a dangerous neighborhood what that difference really may be.

A white man walking through an unfamiliar, “bad” neighborhood is afraid of losing his life or his wallet because he thinks he has something valuable that someone wants to take from him.

A black man walking through an unfamiliar “good” neighborhood is afraid of losing his life or his freedom because he knows that he is not valued there, because the people there may consider him a menace and afraid for their lives or their wallet.

White people who wax reasonable and soothing about race relations in our country, touting how far we’ve come and how it’s time to set aside cries of racism in the public forum are delusional. They want to already be a post racial America. Maybe it’s because they’re tired of trying so hard to figure out how to stop being afraid at the stop lights as they drive through the Englewood and Austin neighborhoods. Being paranoid is a lot of work, it’s exhausting. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of that burden as easily as possible?

Those of us who know our fear have a responsibility to work on dispelling it in our own lives and working toward justice and peace, certainly but we make a mistake if we  judge the condition of our society based upon how good our own therapy is working. It’s not going to get us, as a country, where we need to be.

What white folks often don’t take into account is that this is not really about easing our fears. It’s not about helping us to feel more comfortable. We’ve been comfortable for the entirety of our short history. We don’t get to say when the country is post racial America. That’s not our call.  It might seem unfair, white people, but really, it isn’t. We can know we’re in a post racial America when those people who are maligned tell us they are no longer afraid, when they tell us that they feel valued as equals. That’s what we’re all working toward here and it would be best for us all going forward if we realized that and worked toward that as our common goal.


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