Monday, January 19, 2015

If you're racist and you know it, clap your hands

Clap. Clap.

If you're reading this, even if you're a good and kind and loving person, chances are you're a racist. 

I am. 

I'm not a hooded member of the KKK. I'm not pouring poison into my children's ears about the nature of some people predicated on the color of their skin, the language they speak at home, or the name of the God that they worship. 

But when I'm out at night on city streets and I see a group of brown-skinned young men, I pay attention. I keep an eye out. I'm on alert. I may even move to the other side of the road. And, like it or not, that's racism. 

For the record, I don't like it. But, I take heart in the fact that recognizing my internalized racism is the only way to rid myself of it. 

So ask yourself, "Am I a racist?"

Ask only that. Don't ask yourself if you have black friends or work with Latinos or smile at the Muslim woman whose son is on your kid's basketball team. Don't ask yourself if you've donated to the Burmese aid center in your city or helped to pay for a mission trip to Haiti. 

And don't list reasons that you can't be a racist. Don't say things like "Mixed-raced children are so gorgeous!" Don't mistake making out with a black guy in college for proof of freedom from racism. Don't talk about "reverse-racism." Don't pride yourself on not laughing at racist jokes.

And don't be shocked if you find you are a racist. Racism is all around us. You may not run in circles with people throwing the "n-word" around or referring to immigrants by vulgar slang names, but you're absorbing it through our shared cultural influences. Racism didn't end with "I have a dream" any more than it did with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Do ask this: If we are absorbing it as grown-ups, what are our sponge-like children soaking up?

Anderson Cooper asked that very question in a study he commissioned through his show, Anderson Cooper 360. The study, conducted in 2012, found something heartbreaking. Children as young as six years old are already making inferences based on race. Children as young as my kindergartner. Children who we, especially as white parents, think are colorblind.

We like to say that, white parents, that our littlest loves can't "see" race. I do. I like the idea that my children are too young to make racist judgments, too naive to know to how to discriminate based on superficial characteristics. But these are the same children who recognize the McDonald's logo and the Nike swoosh before they can recite the alphabet. Children are sponges, not filters. They soak up the positive and negative. Little people perceive the implied traits of people with different skin tones as readily as they understand that golden arches equal Happy Meals. 

The toughest part about being a "good" white person, is admitting that good is a grey area. It's difficult to accept that righteousness is a work in progress. It's hard to admit, out loud, that you can want to end racism, but that you provide safe harbor for discrimination in your own thoughts. 

But you don't have to say it out loud. You don't have to stand in a room of like-minded people and announce, "My name is Nicole and I'm a covert racist, someone who publicly advocates for equality, but crosses the street when I see a group of brown-skinned, urban youth." You only have to say it to yourself. 

What we do need to say out loud is that racism exists. We need our kids to know that our society does form opinions, dangerous ones, based on skin tone, based on religion, based on native tongues. Our kids don't need to be shielded from racism---you'd have as much luck shielding them from the existence of the sun and moon---they need to be taught to recognize it. They need to know how to reject it. 

But maybe you aren't a racist. Maybe you are one of the few who have escaped the inherent inequities that are predicated on a shared, sometimes silent and always insidious sense that "those people" are one way and "these people" are another. Even those of us who aren't racist, or even those of us, like me, who strive not to be, suffer under an immunity that prevents us from understanding the depth of the racial divide. It's an immunity to the experience of racism. 

If you're not sure if you're immune to the experience of racism, try this self-test. Think of a joke, an off-color, inappropriate, never-tell-it-in-mixed-company joke that makes you feel bitter, or scared, or marginalized, or threatened. If you can't think of a joke for which your race is the punchline, and for which the punchline is malicious, even dangerous, then you are very likely immune to racism. Jokes intended to remind a group of people that they are members of a powerless group, that they are weak and bad and less, only work if they hurt. And if it doesn't hurt you, if you can't find a joke that undermines your being, you're not part of the marginalized group. You're immune. 

Immunity to racism causes a true colorblindness. One that makes empathy, the necessary ingredient for positive change in race relations, impossible. If you can't understand it, if you can't conceptualize racism and accept its existence, you can't help eliminate it. 

I had an experience with this immunity recently when my friend and I compared similar stories (she's black)

When my oldest child was in pre-k she'd pocketed a pair of sunglasses from a children's clothing store. Oblivious, I paid for the clothes we'd picked out and left with my tiny shoplifter. A few stores down the line, I discovered her filched goods. I told her that taking things we haven't paid for is wrong, criminal even, and that the right thing to do is to return them to the store. We did. I was stern and serious; the clerk was accommodating and kind. A lesson was learned. I followed up by explaining that she should never do that again and we haven't talked about it since. In fact, I'd say I was glad for the opportunity for an object lesson. Don't steal because there are consequences. Today the consequence is having to give back the glasses, feel a bit embarrassed, and get scolded by mommy. Someday, as a big girl and certainly as a grown-up, you'd have the police to answer to. 

Maybe. Or maybe they'd just call us, mom and dad, and we'd take you home and be very disappointed. 

My friend, Keesha, a black woman with a brown-skinned boy, had an entirely different experience. When her son, at the same age my daughter was when she tried to steal those sunglasses, took candy from a store, her conversation was much more involved, her reaction much more panicked. Because someday, she explained, if her son were a young man stealing things, she needs him to know that there is a strong possibility that he won't be a maybe. The cops will come. He will pay. And, statistically speaking, he will pay more harshly than his white-skinned counterparts

I'd like to deny it. I'd like to say to Keesha, "No, surely you're overplaying this. Surely, so long as he's a good kid generally, even when he's older and looking more like a man, these kinds of adolescent infractions won't change the course of his life."

But, based on the fact that none of these same concerns crossed my mind, I'm compelled to admit that I have an immunity to racism. An ignorance of experience that can only be remedied by my desire to seek a better understanding of the world that Keesha is raising her son in. 

Is it so hard to admit this immunity? As a woman, in a world where rape whistles exist, I know that women are living in a different world than men do. As a woman, who was once told at an interview for a job at deli when I was seventeen, "I'm gonna put a 10 here on your application so that my boss knows you're a good looking girl" (this after being asked to stand up and twirl once), I know that I live in a different world than men do.

Is it so hard to believe that Keesha's world, as a black mother, is different as well?

You don't have to answer that last one aloud. It's only important that you answer it at all and honestly.

As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, 

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.**
If you're racist and you know it, clap your hands. Even if you're the only one who can hear you clapping.


*This post is inspired by an on-going conversation I've been having with Keesha, blogger at Mom's New Stage. Read Keesha's account of her son's candy theft here.

**Quote from