Note to my white self…
You did it again.
You made a racist assumption and then tried to justify it.
You assumed the black man who came to your hotel room was a member of the cleaning crew and not the manager. That you did so is understandable. You’ve been enculturated to assume white people are managers and black people are service workers. This bias is so ingrained that it would have taken a great deal of self-awareness to avoid that racist assumption.
However, my frustration is not with your mistake. You may never be free of that prejudice. My irritation is with how quickly and easily you tried to justify your behavior as “anything but racism.” You told your wife you made that assumption because the cleaning personnel were scheduled to arrive, but that isn’t the truth and you know it. It took you several days to finally admit your assumption was racist. You saw a black face and assumed the person was there to serve you. Though you immediately realized your error, you didn’t acknowledge it or apologize. You pretended it didn’t happen.
You should know better.
How many times have you pointed out some obvious racial abuse, discrimination or bias and had your white peers offer an explanation other than racism? This has been frustrating to you and is doubly frustrating to people of color. In a nation where black people were considered property for over 200 years and where for another 100 years politicians, scientists and priests joined forces to propagate theories of black inferiority, we can assume the most likely explanation for any negative experience of a person of color in the United States is racism. Logically, in such a cultural milieu, we should ALWAYS assume racism until the evidence proves otherwise.
Unfortunately, that is not how it works in America. Totally ignoring hundreds of years of societal and cultural evidence, you and so many other white Americans quickly and effortlessly credit the negative experiences and outcomes of people of color as “anything but racism.” What you did to this black hotel manager is repeated millions of times every day in the United States. This knee jerk response permeates white culture, allowing white people to deny, defend and obscure countless acts of racial bias. Racism is always the explanation of last resort.
When the black man is killed by the white police officer at a traffic stop, society and the legal system bend over backwards to credit every possible explanation other than racism. When blacks are in prison at much higher percentages than whites, we examine every other social factor – school attendance, single parent household, income disparity, lead paint exposure – before we conclude racism might explain the disparity. When we make unfair assumptions about black people, white people inevitably blame the victim and suggest their behavior rather than our prejudice caused our response. You thought, “If the manager of the hotel had worn a name tag, I wouldn’t have assumed he was the cleaning crew” rather than “If the man had been white, I would have assumed he was the manager.”
It is this unwillingness of white people to confront and address our often blatant racism that is at the core of our lack of progress on racial reconciliation. It is impossible to address assumptions we refuse to acknowledge. We cannot eliminate prejudices we pretend don’t exist. We cannot focus on treating people equitably when our chief concern is defending our lack of bias.
Racial reconciliation begins with white Americans acknowledging racism as the MOST LIKELY explanation for the negative experiences of the people of color in our communities and lives. Of course, life is complicated and most situations are multi-faceted. Obviously, racism is seldom the only factor in any given situation. Now that we’ve demonstrated our capacity for reasoned discernment, we need to commit to thoroughly examining the racial dimensions of everything that happens in our society BEFORE moving on to other possible explanations.
I know it is hard work. I know it is embarrassing.
None of us like to admit our innate racism.
However, once we do, we can more quickly name our responses for what they are – racist – and move on to the more important work of changing our behavior and our world. We can catch ourselves quickly enough to do what I wish I’d done at that hotel and apologized.
It was not his fault I assumed he was the cleaning crew.
It was mine.