That Time I was Inadvertently Racist

My parents did a really good job of raising my sisters and me, I think. We learned that racism exists, and we learned that it was bad. My mom tells me of the time she deliberately hosted Black friends at a party when she lived in Texas in the late 60s, and was subsequently booted from her apartment. We learned that that was wrong, that the landlord was racist, and that racism was just wrong.

Imagine. That was in the late 60s. We’re just barely fifty years away from that.

Me, I’ve gone out of my way to not be racist, but I know from personal experience that racism lurks somewhere deep in my bones. Here’s my story of that:

It was the second Tuesday of November, 2008. I know that very well, because it was Election Day, and I was swollen with liberal pride, having just come from a polling station where I’d voted for Barack Obama (our last great President). Imagine! Me, a white man, voting for a Black man for President! How noble!

But as I was sitting in my car at an intersection on Stockton Avenue in Sacramento, waiting for the light to change so that I could pull into the parking lot at the public library, I saw a young Black man crossing the street toward me.

Without even thinking about it, I locked the door of my car.

He wasn’t running. He wasn’t carrying any weapons or anything that looked like a weapon. I don’t recall if he was carrying anything at all. It wasn’t a “bad neighborhood”. He was just a teenager, going about his business.

I locked my car door.

That moment, that one incident, taught me that despite my parents’ best intentions and my own liberal pride, I still had racism built into me. After I realized what I’d done, I unlocked my car door, and the kid just passed in front of my car, not paying attention to me at all (or if he did, I didn’t notice).

I’ve thought about this a lot. I went to a private high school that had a significant Hispanic population; when I was at UC Davis, I studied with plenty of people from marginalized communities, and one of my favorite Philosophy study partners was a man from Ethopia. I live in Sacramento, California, which is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. I belong to the Episcopal Church which, despite its own problems in some areas, does teach that racism is a sin. I’ve had plenty of chances to confront my own racist sensibilities, and talk back to them. But they still lurk, I know, and confronting them is a constant conversation with myself.

Racism is such a pervasive part of culture, that so permeates our educational, political, even our religious systems that sometimes we whites don’t even believe it’s there, like a fish who doesn’t even notice the water it swims in. It’s always been there, lurking. It’s generational, and will take generations to solve. I mean, it’s only been fifty years, more or less, that my parents were booted out of their apartment in Texas. We’re less than sixty years away from the Jim Crow laws. Less than two centuries away from slavery. How can we possibly expect to have overcome racism in such a short period of time? We white people have an obligation to see the racism that lives inside ourselves, confront it when we see it, and do our best to promote those marginalized voices when they speak up.

Personally, I don’t envision a day when Black men and women get to participate in the same American dream that we whites do. I envision a day wherein we’ve built a new American dream that embraces Black culture as much as it embraces any other culture. We’re far, far away from that, and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency has probably hurt our chances of reaching it anytime soon.

All we white people can do is our best to have this conversation with our racist selves. Racism is a power structure built right into our culture, and we have the obligation to tear it down.

P.S.: A friend of mine on Facebook noted that I hadn’t made mention of specific actions. I quote her here (with her permission):

We as white folks can actually do quite a lot. We can participate in government to vote in (and perhaps be) the white folks who use their privilege and power to create space for POC. We can call in our fellow white folks. We can educate each other and practice inclusive language and actions. And there’s more.

P.P.S.: I don’t believe for an instant that the incident above was the only time I’ve ever been racist. It’s just the one that stands out the most to me. I’m aware of some of my own biases and problematic behaviors, and I strive to overcome them; but I’m sure there are some that I don’t even identify.

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One thought on “That Time I was Inadvertently Racist”

  1. That was very good Richard. I enjoyed it very much. It did make me look inside of myself and recognize the same in me, and the improvements that could be made. Thank you.

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