Let me be clear: I am a privileged white woman. As such, I feel that I have a responsibility to write about what I perceive as a “white problem,” the problem of being willfully blind to the oppression and humiliation that “other people” suffer on a daily basis. By “willfully blind,” I do not mean that all white people are engaged in any kind of conscious meanness, or that white people are constitutionally incapable of behaving with humanity. No, by willful blindness, I simply mean that many people (of any color) would prefer not to examine themselves too closely, lest they discover something that they might not like. No one wants to be uncomfortable with their own psyche, and shining the light in the dark corners of the mind makes people naturally uncomfortable. But this is what we must do if we are to solve a problem that I believe is harmful to everyone, not just any one race.
I last wrote about racism in my blog “Haters,” and some of the experiences that I write about there are the sort of blatant racism that gets included in Oscar-winning Hollywood scripts. This is the sort of racism that progressive white people can view and say, “How simply horrible! I would never behave that way to my fellow man. I’m so glad we’ve moved on past those days.” And then we leave the theater and go to Starbucks.
The truth is, a lot of racism is not that blatant or that obvious—to white people, anyway. It’s more subtle, it’s unconscious, and it’s just not something we see. If we could see it, there would be greater understanding that, yes, White Privilege is a real thing, even if you’re white and poor and don’t have much.
Racism in all its forms requires an enormous amount of mental gymnastics to rationalize and maintain. My ex-husband grew up in rural Louisiana in the 1950s. His parents were unabashed racists, yet they hired a black woman to be his nanny (his mother was unusual for the day because she worked outside the home). My ex could never quite wrap his head around the idea that this supposedly “inferior” person was entrusted with his upbringing. She loved him and was probably more emotionally present for him than his own parents were. He told me that he was uncomfortable when she told him that she loved him like her own children, whom she was not able to be home with to care for. She was taking care of him, all day, after all.
My ex’s parents were also poor, and one particularly hard year when my ex was little, a family down the road brought them a Thanksgiving dinner. This was probably hard enough on his old man’s pride, but the family who brought the food was black, and that was more than his pride could bear. That must have been a rough day, because my ex never forgot it or his father’s reaction.
An old southerner’s bruised pride and anger, his debasement of the woman who worked for his family, this is “Classic Racism,” yes? This is recognizable, and it happened “back then.” But let’s fast forward to the 2000s.
I once worked for a white man who was vegetarian, recycled, drove a Diesel car with good mileage, liked yoga, and who was, by his own definition, a progressive, liberal voter, who no doubt would applaud any Oscar-winning portrayal of racism by Steven Spielberg. As head of my office, he had the final say on a number of matters, and many of his decisions reflected his own unseen biases.
When we interviewed for a new quality assurance engineer, we had about 5 candidates. One of them was a black man whose resume was just as good as the other candidates’ resumes, and who seemed to have a lovely personality. The quality of his interview and the questions asked were not the same as for the other candidates. When he left, there was never any serious discussion about considering him for the job, whereas the other candidates were discussed quite animatedly. No doubt, many people would say he was simply not as well qualified as the white candidates, but that would be false. He was marginalized from the moment he walked in the door.
Later on at this same job, I had to write scripts for a DVD that we would make for medical providers’ waiting rooms. My task was to write scripts for an “Oprah-type” show, only showcasing medical services. I wrote a number of episodes of this show, taking pains to specify minorities in many of the roles (I wrote the host as Hispanic). I particularly took pains to write a strong character for a black female in one of the scripts. Casting day came, and… my boss had changed everything. My strong black female was now white, and the sole person of color cast was now given what I considered to be the most “downtrodden” role. My boss’s casting was the worst kind of racial stereotyping. My complaints did no good, but I learned a lot from this experience.
I learned that people who think they aren’t racist can be the worst kinds of racists. I learned how pernicious racism really is, and I could see how it hung on into the 21st century, in spite of all the back-slapping and congratulating that we now live in a “post-racial society.”
I don’t think that my old boss is a “bad” person, but I do think he is an unconscious one. I think if he saw himself, truly saw himself, he might actually be horrified. Looking into the mirror and acknowledging the ugly truths about ourselves is the only way that we can begin to heal them. As a white person—as a person!—I believe that my job is to heal myself: “Physician, heal thyself.” Healing is my gift to me. It also happens to be my gift to the world.
I invite everyone, of any color, to examine the feelings that come unbidden when you look upon another person. Are you instantly afraid? Do you instantly clutch your purse? Are you comfortable? Do you even notice the other person? Fears based on stereotypes—merely viewing the physical appearance of another—are learned and become automatic. But they can be unlearned. In order for that to happen, you have to acknowledge them. (Fears based on outward appearance are different from psychic feelings that you get when something is wrong—gut instinct. Learn to recognize the difference.)
I invite everyone to shine their light into dark places and free yourself from the tyranny of your own fears. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.