Sunday, January 20, 2013

Race, Racism, and Me

Today's CPT training day was focused on undoing racism.  As a white person, I could feel myself pulled in different directions.  At some points, I was pleased with myself for recognizing racism in one situation or another (never as my own personal experiences, but rather as observations of others' experiences).  At other points, I was ashamed to recognize times that the subtle messages of racism have manifested themselves in my behavior.

One of those times was just yesterday. Our trainee house is in a predominantly black area.  Yesterday another trainee and I decided to walk to a nearby conservatory.  Before we left the house, I put the case with my iPod and driver's license in my coat pocket.  As we were walking, I noticed a black man crossing the street headed in our direction.  Nothing in the way he moved was in the least bit threatening, yet when I saw him, I thought, "Gee, maybe I should zip my pocket, so no one can get my iPod."  My next thought was, "No, I don't need to do that right now and why am I having the thought right now?"

Of course, I knew the answer. Though I hate to admit it, my mind goes to the messages that are prominent in our culture: black men are criminals, are aggressive, are thieves, and cannot be trusted.  The idea is so well-planted in me that I don't need to see threatening posture from a black man to elicit the thought. The same kind of thing happens sometimes when I drive through primarily black neighborhoods in Louisville.  I get the urge to lock my car doors, when there are no apparent reasons to feel at risk.  Again I'll say that I feel ashamed for these responses, but am glad that I am least becoming aware of them.  Recognizing the problem is the first step, right?

One thing that stuck out to me throughout the day is how little I've had to think about my own race.  We talked about our earliest memories related to our own race and other races.  I had a hard time coming up with memories, because I didn't have to think much about my race growing up.  In contrast, any person of color must become aware of his/her race early in life because of all the unearned disadvantages s/he must know about.  For example, a black person (and more specifically a boy/man) must know, among many other things, where it's safe (or not) to go and how to interact with persons of authority, simply because he is black.

One of our readings (that I don't have here, so cannot credit) talked about how white people think about ourselves as "just people," members of the human race, and generally attribute race to other people and not ourselves, unless explicitly asked to do so.  This reminded me of a news article I saw just a couple days ago.  It was a cautionary article about a man driving around in a white van trying to lure women into it.  The article merely referred to the man as a man - not a black man, Hispanic man, or any other race of man.  However, I am certain that if he had been black or Hispanic, the descriptor word would most certainly be used.  In other words, people automatically know that "man" means white man, because that's the norm.  Anything different from our cultural norm must be specified.  This guy was just a man.

One of our trainers made this comment early in the day:  "For well-meaning white people, there are few things scarier than being called a racist."  I'm certainly not trying to be racist.  The notion horrifies me.  At the same time, I am becoming increasingly aware of just how much privilege I have as a white person.  Just because of the color of my skin, I am more likely to be treated with kindness and respect, no one asks me to speak on behalf of my race, and I see people of my race represented in politics, in media, and basically everywhere else.  That is only the tip of the iceberg called "white privilege."  And this iceberg is not melting like those at the poles of our planet are.

I know my writing today is a little scattered.  It is a reflection of my scampering thoughts.  Please excuse their erratic movement, but I wanted to try to capture at least a few of them while they're moving.  Now I'll free them again, so they can sort themselves out a little better.  Maybe I'll be able to express them better later.

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