Sunday, December 28, 2014
Why it’s not enough to say ‘I’m not a racist’
While I was interviewing for a roommate about 30 years ago a Chinese student asked me, “What is your opinion of Asian people?” I told him in all honesty that I didn’t have one — nor could have I developed one since I knew, and still know to this day, very few Asians of any nationality and thus would be speaking out of utter ignorance.
I wish that were the rule for others.
I understand that a lot of people believe that race relations have supposedly worsened since Barack Obama became president in 2009. To a certain extent I agree with that — but not for the reasons some believe. Rather, I think that they resent that a worldview that they passionately oppose and wish to squelch now has a voice at the highest levels of political power.
That is to say, some say, “Can we not talk about race?” No, we cannot, at least not now.
For us African-Americans, the race issue is never far from us, although I personally don’t think about it much. When you consider that recent encounters with police that have left black males dead are seen generally from a prism of oppression by authority, you can thus understand the suspicion that we have.
But many choose not to understand. They say that if those folks simply had behaved properly they wouldn’t have gotten into trouble or even might still be alive.
The truth be told, they don’t really know if that’s truly the case — no, they really don’t. They don’t understand what it’s like to be stopped by cops for being in the “wrong” neighborhood. They also don’t understand what it’s like to be followed around a store by staff because of the assumption that you might steal something. They don’t understand what it’s like to be awarded a job or promotion on the suspicion of “affirmative action.”
Which is why rants that begin “I’m not a racist, but … ” get little traction from us.
And if you really, really desire racial harmony, it’s not possible to be passive about it. We need to talk and listen to each other, non-defensively, about each other’s perceptions, and not assume that the other person is whining. I also appreciate that many whites who aren’t affected directly are identifying with the “underdogs” — that will do more to combat racism than anything else.
When I was a child a group called Think recorded a song with the recurring refrain “Things get a little easier / Once you understand.” The song comprised a number of strained conversations between old and young where the people involved were merely talking past each other, and it ended when the cops called one man to inform him that his son died of a drug overdose, and the man began weeping. Perhaps he realized that his intransigence cost him his son.
Let’s try to avoid such situations.