A few years back, I travelled to India with a friend from the country but who had become a US citizen. It was a wonderful experience, full of new scenery and exciting tastes, but there was something a little off. No matter where I went, it felt like all eyes were always on me. I caught glances from every person I passed. It was unnerving not to know if their internal commentary was that of quiet curiousity or disdain. Eventually, my friend filled me in on why being noticed for being white shouldn’t be an issue.
“Stephen, everyone is racist. It can’t be helped. But being racially aware is not necessarily a bad thing. The only thing that can be helped about it is how you react to your observation of racial differences. If you judge the people negatively whose skin color is different from your own, then, that is not good. But if you simply recognize that difference, like noticing eye color or hair color differences, then you are not, most likely, a racist. But if your immediate reaction when you see the difference is that you don’t like them, are afraid of them, don’t trust them, don’t want them in the same room with you then, well, you’re probably a racist.”
I have looked at racism differently ever since that day. That is not to say that I now believe it is so clear-cut, but I do feel a special sort of annoyance at those who think prejudices can be extinguished by being colorblind. You see, I was forced to reflect that day on how I immediately noticed differences among myself and others, and if my first reaction was incendiary. I have fallen short on a number of occasions of being the open-minded, kind person we all ought to be. It is part social conditioning, and part personal failing. But, because of my newfound inclination to be self-aware, I am growing.
Having been raised in the south in the 50’s and 60’s, racial prejudice, the really bad kind, was everywhere and I despised it early on. My father, well, he couldn’t seem to help himself, I guess. He was surrounded by others who were like him and they were all comfortable in their prejudices, their prejudgement and even their hatred. Mine, luckily, was a case of responding negatively to a father’s attributes and social habits. Whenever he exhibited his hatred, I tended to respond with love and understanding. Honestly, I probably followed my loving, now 91 years old mother’s view to human relationships and views.
But today, there is a cultural shift taking place in this country that is requiring all citizens of conscious to acknowledge the institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination that runs rampant in various federal and local organizations. It is a hard truth that our America is not perfect, nor are other sovereign nations. Look at how long it took those with power to admit that police departments don’t simply have “bad apples,” but rather poor training, the time it took to get to Loving v. Virginia, Obergefell v. Hodges. Few people can name the officers who murdered unarmed citizens, or the clerks who refused marriage licenses for interracial or same-sex couples. As a society, all we remember or put true importance on is the shift from personal accountability to calls for systemic changes. I believe we should expect both.
In these highly charged and crazy times which are being fomented and fed by our president, it is important for people to recognize that the prejudgement that controls their beliefs and attitudes about other people IS racism. These individuals’ attitudes might not always be backed by financial, political or administrative actions, but via elections in a democracy such as ours, it enables those in powerful positions to use institutions as weapons. Working-class and poor, non-government employee individuals who walk into a room and have hate in their heart can be and have been just as dangerous as the Trumps of the world, because in a democratic society they can vote and be heard, and two years ago they put our country on a particularly steep downward spiral.
You can be guilty of racism or sexism even if you haven’t personally lynched or assaulted anyone. Yet, people will stand in a cocktail party or at a podium and claim, angrily and righteously, that they are not, they cannot be, racist. I would just like to say, with no judgement because that gets us nowhere, that that is not true. If we can start looking at the term racist as less of a personal attack and more of a call to reflection, there could be widespread change.
In the end, if we have eyes and ears, we are all racially aware. We can’t help but be observant of our differences. But what we can do, I would contend that we must do, is to not let our observations of these skin deep differences drive our reactions to our fellow man. As I have always said, to not realize that we are ALL IN THIS TOGETHER is to ignore one of our greatest strengths as a species; our power in unity.