(originally posted 6/3/20)
My purpose in writing this is the hope that what I experienced can help other well-intentioned white people more forward in their journeys confronting their own racism.
I am a white guy who grew up evangelical in the suburbs. I have never consciously or deliberately held any belief that anybody was lesser than me because of skin color. I would have very confidently told people I was not racist, much like Amy Cooper did, for my entire childhood and young adulthood. I only cared about people. I never vilified people except those I viewed as trying to hurt others, which was never consciously determined by any physical characteristic like skin color, sexuality, gender, etc… It took me quite a long time to understand that it is possible to be racist with only good intentions. It began as a result of working in a nightclub in Portland, OR. One of my coworkers, who became a good friend of mine, was a patient, intelligent black guy who enjoyed discussion and research. We spent many hours cleaning the bar before opening talking about all sorts of things. One topic that came up often was the state of race in our culture. I viewed myself as a progressive person (and compared many of the surroundings of my youth, I was) but I found myself struggling to understand or agree with much of what he was talking about. I always viewed racism as being something that was violent and deliberate, perpetrated by Nazis and Klansmen who were obviously awful people doing awful things. I also knew that racist jokes were demeaning, though I assumed that there was some sort of scale or spectrum of “bad” to “ok”. I couldn’t understand how a portrait of Marilyn Monroe hanging in our club that catered to a large community of people of color could be indicative of any sort of racism. These were all things we talked about and my friend was gracious enough to listen to me, answer my questions, and let me explore opinions that certainly must have caused him discomfort.
Finally, one night, it registered to me. I was bartending and two black guys walked into the club dressed with over the top gangster style. Then I heard myself make a subconscious mental note to keep an eye on them. That was when it hit me. We were in Portland, an incredibly white city. We had some gang issues in the city and downtown around the club (it’s not talked about much but it does actually happen. In lily-white, indie-rock Portland the bouncers wear bullet proof vests for good reason, their comrades have been killed and there have been gang related shootings in the club district downtown as well as the rest of the city and surrounding area) but in a city as white as Portland there were just as likely to be white gang members as black. I would have laughed at white guys coming into the club dressed like these two were. That different response was it. That was racist. That was racism, inside me. I had no idea. All of a sudden so much made sense. I began to understand the difference between Racism™ and racism. I saw how one could be racist without knowing or wanting to be. I think there is still a lot of nomenclature confusion with a term as big as racism, but that is the point. Much of my learning about racism was realizing how big it is. Pinning it only to conscious, deliberate acts of physical racial violence ignores an enormous submerged iceberg of issues.
I learned that racism is huge, a massive word, and people often don’t think it is. I learned that a Marilyn Monroe portrait hanging in a club that caters to a large community of people of color is indicative of the white standards of beauty in popular media. I learned that income inequality is due in large part to redlining, which my friend introduced me to (I recently learned that when my parents bought their first house in California there was still a clause - called a covenant - that forbid people of color from purchasing it. This was obviously illegal at that point but the text had still never been removed and that was 1987). Viewing a black person as more of a threat than a white person dressed the same way? That’s racist, too. It sounds obvious when you say it like that but it’s less obvious when you’re experiencing it. As a white, evangelical, suburban kid, the element of fear for me was related primarily to violence and gang activity. This isn’t to say I didn’t have black friends, or that I thought all black people were involved in gangs and were violent. But it did lead to elements of fear and wariness at every strange black person I met who dressed a certain way. That same response wasn’t directed at white people who dressed the same - a style of dress that was, and is, related to popular music. While overt racism has been taken off the books in many places, it lives on in subconscious cultural voices of previous racists that exist in the heads of well meaning people like you and I (not to mention more subtle laws that have similar effects, enacted by less well-meaning lawmakers). These voices can result in actions we don’t see ourselves making.
I still hear myself thinking thoughts I don’t agree with or that I know are false but that match the narratives of the communities I was raised in. I have learned to recognize them for what they are, false stories told by the culture I grew up in and left, passed down directly from conscious racists of decades past into my head. Just because you hear something in your head doesn’t mean you think it. Sometimes the voice in your head isn’t yours. Sometimes your fear is baseless. It can be hard, but look for any time you think or feel something about a person of color that is different than the way you think or feel about another white person. That is racism. It is quiet, it is insidious, and it is built into our culture. It is a lifelong journey but it is up to us to identify it and eradicate it, starting with ourselves.
That is my journey so far. It continues every day.