Note to my white self…

Sometimes you say racist things.

I’m glad you avoid blatantly racist language, but don’t be too proud of that. Most people in our society don’t use the more obvious racial slurs.  Most people know spouting racial stereotypes is ugly.  Political correctness, for all its detractors, does create a more civil and polite culture.  I’m glad you try to be civil and polite.  Just remember that being politically correct doesn’t eliminate racism.  It simply forces racism into different linguistic forms.

For example, the other day when a salesman came to your house, you said to your wife, “A black man tried to sell us a security system today.” Think about it.  Why did you mention the color of his skin?  It was completely irrelevant.  You didn’t have a conversation with him  about race.  He asked if you were interesting in a security system and you said no.  Describing him as black is racist.

I know. It seems harmless enough.  However, your need to differentiate yourself and all other white people from that salesman demonstrates a racial bias.  He wasn’t just another man.  He was a black man.  That you needed to mention that suggests – at the very least – a level of discomfort with black people.  More disturbing, it may reveal deeper racial bias.  Perhaps you were subtly warning your wife that black men were knocking on doors in your white neighborhood and that she should be careful.  I know you don’t want to think that, but most racism is deeply embedded and often unconscious.

Think about the things you say. Remember at the convenience store, when you were standing behind a woman with three children who was buying lottery scratch offs.  You said, “I saw this Latino woman with three children buying scratch offs.”  Being critical of poor people who buy scratch offs – while judgmental – is defensible.  Identifying her racial or ethnic background is not.  In so doing, you’re implying ALL Latino people neglect their children.  Adding her identity is irrelevant unless you have a racially bias opinion.

Let’s stop here and think about it. If the woman had been white, you wouldn’t have said, “I saw this white woman with three children buying scratch offs.”  You wouldn’t have implied her whiteness had anything to do with her negligence of her children.  Indeed, you seldom identify any white person with that identifier.  White is the norm.  You would never say “A white man tried to sell us a security system today.”  Whiteness is irrelevant to understanding the salesman’s behavior.  This is not the case with the black man or Latino woman.  When you identify them, you imply the color of their skin is essential to understanding their behavior.  That is racist.

Even when you use someone’s racial identity in a positive context it can be racist. Remember when you came home and said to your wife, “My waitress today was such a nice black woman.”  That seems innocent enough.  You’re saying something nice.  But why is her blackness relevant?  The only explanation for adding the color of her skin is if you still harbor some negative opinions of black people.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re implying a black woman being nice is noteworthy.  Ironically, your compliment isn’t really a compliment.  It is racist.

I know all of this is a painful to hear and admit. You want to think you’re free of racial bias.  You don’t want to see or hear your own racial prejudice.  I also know you sincerely want to be less racist.  So here’s my challenge for you…

Stop using identifiers for people of color unless it is relevant. Sometimes it can be.  For example, saying, “My black friend pointed out my racist behavior” is appropriate.  In this instance, their blackness is relevant and important.  Their being black gives their criticism more validity.  In most other situations, identifying the color or ethnicity of someone is unnecessary.  So stop.

Or, if this seems too hard, start using identifiers for everyone. Talk about your white wife, your white friend, the white cashier and the white person you met on the street.  If you still think identifying the color of someone’s skin is necessary, then at least be equitable about it.  Point out everyone’s race.  Ironically, doing so might help you see how seldom you interact with people of color.

Regardless, next time you catch yourself identifying someone by their color or ethnicity, stop and think, “Was that really necessary?”

What did my words imply about them?

What do my words imply about me?

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