Tuesday, October 16, 2007

RS--Everyone's a little bit racist

I am a racist. And I am not happy about it. Oh, not in that overt, name calling, red state way. I am a liberal. I believe in equal rights for everyone. I try not to be racist, try to convince myself I am not; but I know I am. The reason I know I am is that every time I get behind the wheel of a car and another driver pisses me off, some nasty thought about the person's heritage is the first thing that pops into my head. It may not leak out of my mouth or it may only whimper out under my breath, but it is there. I hate that about myself.

I grew up around that other kind of racism. The kind where jew is a verb and being "out of your cotton pickin mind" is an off-handed remark, and neither gets a flinch nor second thought. The N-word doesn't get nearly so much notice as the G-D word—Goddammit. It doesn't get noticed at all. It is no different than a but or an and.

I received one of those e-mails that circulate with some regularity the other day that basically attacks every race for its worrying privilege and wonders without historical perspective or present irony why we don't have White History month or White Pride parades among other mounting injustices. I scrawled off a seething response to the sender about how every month is White History month and historical oppression and marginalization of minorities (not to mention massacres, lynchings, enslavement, internment, and unchallenged incarceration of enemy combatants) in the name of White Pride happens every day, along with other hysterical rants. I knew there were probably 66 degrees of separation between me and the original author and that most of it would have gone over his (I just assumed it was a he) head anyway. I didn't care. I couldn't take the perpetuation of the racism. People had to know I didn't like it, and they had to know that I am NOT like that. It made me feel bad and better at the same time. Had I really done something to change racism? When I was driving out of the city three days later, I learned I had not.

I wasn't proud of myself, but I don't know how to change it. So, I don’t do anything.

I hate political correctness though. I am not color blind, and I am proud of that. Actually, I think color is pretty darned fantastic. The world is a better place because of all the color in it; and I think the human race is too. And I ain't gonna pretend those colors don't exist. It is all well and good that we are more alike than we are different, and there's much to celebrate in that. But those differences are cause for celebration too. I'm not a fan of the endless versions of hyphenate American to describe anyone. If we are a melting pot, then we are all American. And if you are a black person born in London, then how the hell do I describe you behind your back? Use your name (which I probably haven't bothered to learn), or "the one who grew up without benefit of a dentist", or "Mr. Faw Faw Faw over there"? Can I be offensive about a Brit since we haven't really oppressed that population recently, other than duping them into an unnecessary war? Well, I'll take anything without a hyphen in it, thank you very much.

I came face to face with my racism the other day in a most bizarre way; but when I saw myself reflected, I wasn't sure what to make of me. I dashed into McDonald's for lunch. Found two tables butted up against each other and sat at the unoccupied one, head buried alternately in my two plain hamburgers and medium fries—I finally figured out that if I don't want my ass to be supersized then my lunch can't be either—and my magazine. A black guy was sitting at the other table. I didn't acknowledge him and he didn't acknowledge me. That's not racism, that's being a New Yorker.

The article I was reading was about the involuntary servitude currently being perpetrated on undocumented migrant farm workers in Florida. I was appropriately aghast but equally apathetic. After all, the fries were extra crispy just like I like them. But I learned from the article that the cost of my lunch was potentially equal to what these workers cleared in a day once the miscellaneous costs of boarding, transportation, and incidentals were deducted from their already modest pay.

A black woman asked the man if she could share his table and ended up sitting catty-cornered, across from me as I was turning the magazine over. The title of the article was "Our Slaves", and it was now posted in size 54, bold, serif font right in her sight line. I was torn, sort of. I wondered what she thought of me for reading an article with that title, wondered what she thought it was about, and half hoped she'd ask me about it just so I could explain, to clear my name so to speak. Wouldn't want her to think I was indifferent to racism after all. She didn't ask, and I don't know if she even noticed. It never occurred to me to just put the damn thing down. I couldn't read another article because I had already read the rest of the magazine, and there was no way I could enjoy my lunch if I didn't have something to hide behind.

The gentleman left without comment to me or the woman. A few minutes later three elderly white ladies approached the woman and asked if they could share her table. Their thick Southern drawls were lyrical and luxurious. The woman kindly obliged. And the women sat without awkwardness or that feigned pride in themselves at sitting with that "poor colored girl" or that bewildered, zoo-like, Bill O'Reilly gaze at the wonderment that "they" eat just like we do. I tensed up at the possibility of some insensitive remark that might come flying out at any moment leaving me to pounce to protect this poor helpless woman.

Why did I assume she was helpless? Because she was black, perhaps? And why did I get so worked up about something that probably wasn't going to (and didn't) happen? Because they were southern, perhaps? And why did I assume that I would pounce if they said something inappropriate? Wishful thinking, perhaps?

They simply sat, chatting and sipping their cold drinks and remarking how happy they were to be off their feet. One lamented in disbelief that McDonald's hadn't had sweet tea, making her drink a bitter disappointment. The black woman rose to leave and asked the woman if she wanted her to bring up some sweetener from downstairs. The woman gratefully agreed and thanked her profusely.

It was a kind offer, and it made me sick to my stomach. These old Southern women had probably had black women as domestic staff for much of their lives, fetching them sugar for their tea without so much as looking them in the eye. They'd probably had those same black women serve sweet tea to their husbands when they returned from working up a sweat burning crosses. I not only assumed these women's racism, I was painting it in a colorful history. And I wanted to take the black woman aside and shake her for even thinking about serving a white woman, shake the kindness right out of her.

I could have stood to have some kindness shaken into me. This woman had done nothing more than rise in her full and equal humanness and offer some humanity. And I was incensed. When I had calmed myself down, swallowed a little self-disgust with my last fist full of trans fat, I wondered what you call that. Surely not racism. Ugliness, certainly, but not racism. . .right?

Three old women sat down to rest because they were tired. I hated them instantly, enraged by a history that demonized a woman who also sat just because she was tired. Sometime in my youth I was infected with prejudice and had convalesced myself into a serious overcorrection. Overdosed on my own good intentions. I guess you can't take the red state out of the boy. What's worse, I know better.

My roommate is German and is attacked occasionally at cocktail parties by liberals and lunatics who want to blame him personally for the Holocaust. He wasn't there. He wasn't even alive. I don't believe that I am personally responsible for slavery or my country's history of racist massacre. Like my roommate, I wasn't even there. I believe that our country does owe something to the current generations of the historically oppressed because it continues and we created it and maybe, just maybe, owning up to it and trying to make up for it will stop it. I may not oppress actively, but I don't actively do anything about the oppression either. I want my country, my government, to do something, to clear my conscience for me.

Instead I feel superior to all those red staters. It may be true that I am racist, a little bit, but I am a better kind of racist because I don't vote against people's rights, I don't call people names, and I don't do any of the other vile things that oppress and marginalize—I don't do anything.

And when I see myself reflected in the rear-view mirror after someone cuts me off, I see why I have a guilty conscience. I see a racist, probably the worst kind of racist, because I don't do anything.

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