Racism permeated our childhood
A muddy stream constant through our lives
Crying out to our innocence with its painfulness
Interfering with our friendships
Seen clearly in our child-eyes as the wrong it was
Murdering the purity of our souls
I’m going to tell three stories, two about myself, and the other told me by a friend who heard it from a friend. All of these story tellers are opposed to racism and trying very hard to eliminate it from our lives, and yet…
I was walking down the street. Some neighbors were planting drought resistant plants in front of their house. They were Latino. My first thought? Wow, they know how important it is to plant drought resistant plants even though they’re Latino.
It took me a moment, but then I recognized the subtle racism of my thought. They’re Latinos so they won’t know about these things – won’t be educated …
One day I was standing opposite the side door to a church where I would be attending an event in the evening. A black man came along and moved back and forth in front of the door, reading the sign on it and looking around. If he’d been white I’d probably assumed he was trying to figure out if this was the place he was looking for, but the first thought that flickered through my head was, Is he looking around to see if anyone is watching him — planning to go in and steal something?
Fortunately, I erased that thought almost immediately in a wave of shame, my face turning hot with embarrassment. My face got hot again that night as I recognized him. He was the pianist for that night’s event.
It is impossible to avoid the rampant racism around us. What we can do is be alert for it, recognize it, and name it when we find it floating through our heads.
The other day someone told me a story her friend had told her. The story was really about the reaction of the friend to being suddenly and without cause punched in the face. The friend was proud of himself – and rightly so – for not responding violently, instead saying, “I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
But the story I want to tell is about the descriptive language used in telling this story. The person who told it to me said, “My friend was walking down the street and all of a sudden this big black man jumped up and punched him in the nose.” She told of her friend’s non-violent response, and then said, “The black man’s friends came running up and pulled him away apologizing to the victim. Another man – a client of my friend’s – ran up and helped my friend.”
After hearing this story, what do you know of the race of the various characters? Only that the perpetrator was “black”. Why did the story teller tell me this and not the race of the others? Because it made the big man sound scarier. There was no other reason race was important in this story at all. Of course, my friend, who works hard at not being racist, was not really aware of having done this. This kind of language is so prevalent in our society that it slips out without even the most conscientious of us realizing it.
We in the United States are still seeing “black” as synonymous with “scary”. We must consciously weed this concept out of our minds and our language. Were the guy’s friends scary? No, they were helpful, reasonable. How about the “client”? Was he scary? No. But all of these people were also African American…
Oh, do you notice the difference? Not black, but African American. Not so scary.
We need to get beyond this. Describe someone as black or white if it’s relevant, but not as a stereotype – in this case the stereotype of the black male as violent. Being black or white doesn’t make a person scary. It’s their actions that are frightening whether they are “big black men” or “big white cops.”
Did you notice that? If you’re African American the big scary guy is white. As history shows, not an unreasonable fear.