Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Racist Life

I was born and raised in the United States Army.  According to 2012 statistics, 40.1% of Active Duty personnel identify as racial or ethnic minorities (Black or African American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, multi-racial, or other/unknown).  My dad is a physical therapist, and so I spent a lot of time around other MEDDAC staff of a variety of races and ethnicities – officers and enlisted, those with high levels of education and those with less.  
My earliest memories are of living in Bremerhaven, Germany, where one of my closest preschool friends was a black boy named Teddy.  His dad was either a surgeon or an anesthesiologist (I can’t quite remember which), and he and my dad were friends.  Often, when Teddy’s dad had to be in the OR, he would invite my dad to come along to watch and learn.  At the time, the base housing complex we lived in had a lot of older kids, and far fewer younger ones.  I was about 4 years old, and Teddy must have been the same.  We stuck together on the playground, against those mean 5th graders who spun the merry-go-round too fast so we would fall off.  

Later, when my sister was born, our Hispanic Latino neighbors who lived across the hall would cheerfully send their small dog over after dinner each night to clean up under her high chair.
My dad played on various softball and volleyball teams growing up, filled with a variety of races and ethnicities – again, representing the broader culture of the U.S. military.  

This was the world I lived in.

At the end of 4th grade, I was diagnosed with bone cancer, and my dad was transferred to a post in Maryland, so that I could be treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  You meet a lot of people when you spend that much time in the hospital.  The first night we spent there (having been medevac’d in on a cargo plane), we met Jennifer – a six year old black girl who had the same diagnosis as me, and her mother, who was an Army cook.  

In the ensuing weeks, months, and years, I met, interacted with, and was cared for by people of a variety of races and ethnicities.  Black, Asian, Hispanic – doctors, nurses, nurses assistants, orderlies, cleaning staff, cafeteria cooks and cashiers, radiology techs, gift shop and bookmobile volunteers.  Fellow travelers at the hospital and local Ronald McDonald House.  

In 5th grade, I had my first real crush on a boy.  His name was Bryan, and he was an African American kid in my class.  I found him cute and kind, a little more thoughtful than the rest of our male classmates who were, age-appropriately, mostly rather obnoxious.  

As I grew, these sorts of interactions continued.  Even as I finished treatment and my family moved on, I found myself engaging with people of diverse racial backgrounds because of where we lived, where I went to school, and who my dad worked with.  When my parents hosted the occasional party, men and women of all ethnicities hung out at my house – some even spent time with us during the holidays, when they couldn’t take the leave to go home to their families.  

This was all perfectly normal to me.  The only reason that I can now recall these interactions as having any relation at all to race is because I’ve been culling my memories for months.  

All of this is not to suggest by virtue of personal anecdote that I am not racist because I “have black friends” or whatever.  

No.  The point I want to make is that, from early childhood, I interacted with and was comfortable around people of all races and ethnicities.  And now I'm not.

I will freely admit that I am no longer comfortable around blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and other people of color.  Does this make me a racist?  Probably, but then, from what I’ve learned over the last few years in “anti-racism training” and “diversity awareness workshops”, I always was racist, and I always will be.  According to reigning social theory, it is impossible for white people to not be racist, and is impossible for any non-whites to be racist.  Ever.  Anywhere.  In any culture.  Or any location.  I’m not sure if there’s some sort of “racist gene” that is coded into my DNA, that individuals of color lack, but somehow or another, I’ve been educated to understand that I cannot not be a racist.  

Which is bad.  I mean, you’re not supposed to be a racist, right?  But if you’re white (like me), you can’t help it.  So naturally I feel guilty about this.  Now, the guilt is not the biggest issue.  I’ll deal with that, I guess. (Although, for the record, I have yet to hear anyone suggest that the sin of racism is in any way forgiveable by a Holy God. So maybe I won’t deal with it.)

What I can’t avoid is the discomfort, the self-consciousness, the self-focus, the incurvatus se - oh look, there's another sin - that now hallmarks all my interactions with people of color.  

If I see someone on the street or in a store, do I look at them (or is that staring? Judging?  Wondering why they are here – in this store, on this planet?)  Do I not look at them (or is that avoiding them? Rejecting? Dehumanizing?)

Do I say hello? If I say hello will it sound sincere?  Will it be interpreted as sincere? Will it look like I’m “trying to not be racist”?  Oh, who am I kidding?  I’m an introvert.  I really don’t say hello to random strangers on the street, ever.  But this person doesn’t know that.  If I don’t say hello, will they think it’s because they are [fill in race here]?  

What about something as complicated as counting the change I receive, rather than tossing it into my wallet?  Or checking over a restaurant bill twice?  If I do that to a clerk or waitress, will they think it’s because I don’t trust them, rather than because that’s just what I do?  God forgive I have to ask a person of color for help – in a classroom, in a store, on the side of the road if my car has broken down.  What if it looks like I think they are all “the help” and exist on this planet to serve me?  If I don’t ask, when I clearly am in need, does the person notice and assume that I don’t want their help? 
And when a person of color initiates a conversation with me – what happens if I, as an introvert, am annoyed by unnecessary small talk?  What if they ask for help that I’m simply unable or unqualified to give? Will they interpret that as animus?  

The list goes on. 

And it makes me sad.  It makes me sad that if I ran into my friend Teddy, who taught me to dip my French fries in mayo, I wouldn’t know how to interact with him.  It makes me sad that the gynecologist can’t send their dog over to vacuum up baby food in my house anymore – because isn’t that just an extension of the Hispanics-as-cleaners stereotype?  It makes me sad that Jennifer, who once displeased her mother and amused all the rest of us when she got so frustrated with her prosthesis that she threw it in a lake, sees me as an oppressor rather than a friend and fellow cancer survivor.  It makes me sad that all those doctors and nurses and other people who cared for me did it not because they enjoyed their careers, but because of some institutionalized power structure that requires people of color to serve whites.  It makes me sad that all those people my parents welcomed into their home over the years apparently viewed my family as patronizing rather than loving. 

It makes me sad that “anti-racism” efforts have made me more racist than I ever was.  

Congrats to those who feel better by this state of affairs.  

Count this unforgiven, unforgiveable racist out. 


Anonymous said...

Yes, as a fellow white person, I find that thinking about systemic racism causes me deep pain and discomfort that I would like to live without. I don't want to live in that kind of a world either. If only we could wish it away, be innocent as kids again, and live in a world without our traumatic history and ongoing racial discrimination and violence!!! But I have come to believe that we do live in that kind of an unjust racist world, and that I'm part of it. "Ouch" doesn't even begin to cover it--and this realization leads me constantly to new awe for God's forgiveness. How unimaginably deep, how real and costly, must God's love be if there is actually forgiveness for all the terrible ways we humans hurt each other?

I don't think that being aware of systemic racism and uncomfortable about your complicity in it it makes you 'more' racist, although I can see why you feel that way. I think it's an important step on a journey toward self-awareness and deeper listening, love and connection with other human beings. The painful questions you are asking--about how people of color might experience your interactions--seem like good, important ones to me, because empathy is central to relationship. But of course shame and fear often go along with those questions for us white people. And shame and fear create painful barriers to relationship. I can see how you would feel like this discomfort is moving you farther from, not closer to, healthy relationships with people of color.

Your stories remind me of the many times I struggle with feeling hyper-aware and fragile as a white person, worrying that I'll easily do something that will hurt another person or expose my racism. For me, the keys to dealing with that painful self-consciousness are listening, time, practice, prayer, and the grace and humor of empathetic friends. Like an addict learning to live sober, resisting my racism is a hard but life-giving process of learning to live and love in new, healthier ways. It stinks sometimes. But the kind of moments of joy and human connection that you describe from your childhood are the ballast of hope that help me get through the painful moments, and remind me why any of it matters. There are more and more, not fewer, of these good times for me as time goes by, because I don't bear the sadness and hurt of racism alone.

The best way I think of to truly love my friends of color is to listen to their stories of oppression, be accountable when I'm called out on my racism, and continue the confusing, messy process of learning to be a joyful, caring white ally. It's a long shot, but by the grace of God there is hope!

Carl said...

Anonymous, I think that you're missing the point. The point is, the hypersensitivity creates racial distinctions *where they didn't need to exist*. The best form of non-racism is that actions have no race-related meaning at all, that people don't even think about the color of someone else's skin. The author had that growing up. Due to the focus on actively removing inequality, she has lost some of it along the way.

It's like trying as hard as you can not to think about something. The harder you try, the more you think of it. The best approach is to forget about the whole issue and do something else instead.

Anonymous said...

yeah anonymous totally missed the point. Anti-racism is a code word for 'anti-white.' The kind of world where a majority of people believe this will be a very tragic world, for there is no room for self-respecting 'white' people in it. This kind of angry, bitter thinking a la Ta Nehisi Coates will most surely lead to more racial violence, physical and rhetorical (although in reverse order practically), and more racial division. Thats the phenomenon she's talking about. Let's not miss that point.
To any fellow white liberal reading this - take a close look at the rhetoric of BLM and other black nationalist groups. Hint: it's not about unity or equality, its deeply lacking in compassion, and has a strong totalitarian bent (racial nationalism + totalitarian politics). Let's all take a deep breath and allow these illiberal forces to expose themselves, then learn from this toxic episode in our history.

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