The Unwitting American Racist

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When two of my friends and co-workers, Kim and Tina, asked if I felt safe walking to my car at night by myself in an affluent La Jolla neighborhood at the end of our evening out, I actually said, “Look around! There’s nothing but rich white people!”

Yep. It came right out of my stupid white mouth to two of my black friends.

Kim immediately replied with a furrowed brow, “There are bad white people, too.”

I urgently apologized, realizing how misinterpreted my words were. “I’m so sorry. That’s not what I meant!”

“Always holdin’ the black man down,” mocked Kim with a playful, but still begrudging attitude.

I repeated, “Oh my God, that’s not what I meant…” barely able to explain myself as I trailed off into a pouty face with shoulders shrugged low, humiliated.

Our other friend Tina, the caretaker of our group, put her arm around me, taking pity on me. “Oh! She’s sad. It’s ok.”

In my mind, my comment was taking a jab at La Jolla – a place where boutique stores and art galleries line the pristine streets, where predominantly white residents are well dressed, drive status cars, and are chronically tan. I grew up wearing imitation Reebok’s in a middle school full of designer kids where I was frequently made fun of for wearing “fake” clothes. I grew to dislike the have-and-have-not mentality. I wasn’t meaning to say I felt safe because there were no black people around. I was meaning to mock privileged white La Jolla.

Feeling horribly misunderstood, I tried to explain myself, but every part of the explanation was ridiculous. I was either being a classist with a suppressed disdain against people with money, or I was being an ignorant racist. There was no up side.

That night I couldn’t sleep, too ashamed to even tell my husband what I said. I wasn’t sure I was going to admit it to anyone, ever. Once I did tell him a day later, he jokingly called it my “Paula Dean moment.” I was horrified. What? No way. Not me. My friends knew I didn’t mean it like that, right? Right?

So disturbed by the situation, I called Kim the next day to talk about it. She graciously accepted my apology adding in a matter of fact tone, “I’m glad you wanted to clear the air.”

Her comment only reinforced to me that the air should be cleared, but she was not going to say it was all ok. It was not all ok.

In his article titled, ‘How I talk to white people about race’, Blogger and Author Clay Rivers says it’s hard for some white people to talk about race.

“To engage in chat with someone black about the subject causes them to take a look at themselves and wonder, ‘Do they think I’m a racist? Am I a racist? Have I ever done that?’ If anyone can ask that question of him- or herself, chances are they’re not a practicing racist. The more important question they should ask is: ‘Have I ever unwittingly done that?’”

Turns out, I just unwittingly did that.

It was like standing in an exploding nuclear power plant realizing I was infected in a pool of radiation. I wanted to run to the nearest shower to wash the poison off of me with harsh bristle brushes and stinging disinfecting soap.

Days afterwards, part of me, the white defensive part, felt maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe she was pointing out racism where there wasn’t any. Maybe she was the one being oversensitive instead of me being insensitive.

After all, I’m not racist. I have friends of all ethnicities, skin colors, sexual orientations, political and religious beliefs. This removes me from any possibility of racism, doesn’t it?

The answer, it turns out, is no. After researching racism in articles, definitions and organizations in order to prove to myself that I was not anything close to a racist, I discovered that my safe La Jolla street corner comment, “Look around. There’s nothing but rich white people,” was, in fact, a form of institutionalized racism, whether I wanted to believe it or not.

According to Taking Action Against Racism (TARR), a project aiming to fight racism by providing tools and resources for the media, community leaders and educators, institutionalized racism is a more subtle form of racism which is structured into political and social institutions, including government, education, healthcare, the justice system, employment and housing. “The people who manage our institutions may not be racist as individuals, but they may well discriminate as part of simply carrying out their job, often without being aware that their role in an institution is contributing to a discriminatory outcome.”

In his article, ‘I, Racist’, John Metta, a writer with a mixed race background, explains this lack of awareness and defensiveness on the part of white America.

“Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we’re being angry. In fact, a key element in any racial argument in America is the Angry Black person, and racial discussions shut down when that person speaks. The Angry Black person invalidates any arguments about racism because they are ‘just being overly sensitive,’ or ‘too emotional,’ or – playing the race card… But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.”

White feelings, my friends. There it is, clear as day to me now, because this is exactly what I experienced in my embarrassing Paula Dean moment. I was called out on a perceived racist comment, regardless of how much I didn’t mean it that way. I had my feelings hurt and innately sought to defend myself against such a horrible implication to the point that my friends felt sorry for me. I was perpetuating institutionalized racism in this exchange – we all were – because of my white defensive feelings.

Metta goes on to write, “White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about ‘I, racist’ and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.”

As a white person, I always knew racism existed, but I thought I had never experienced or witnessed it directly – that is until I started this research. Racism isn’t just hateful behavior so tangibly obvious that it is inarguable. Systemic racism, as it lives within the structure of our neighborhoods and our schools, our dinner conversations and our street corner goodbyes, and as it lingers in that dark place in the back of our minds that we don’t dare shine the light of day on – that is where, if we are paying attention, racism still lives today.

I was once getting ready to do interviews with software engineers at a global company in Paris. Out of the five French men we were interviewing, one of them was black, wearing a pink business shirt. He had stepped away, and without recalling his name, I asked where the African American man was so I could let him know we were ready for him.

My work associate with wide eyes looked at me and said, “He’s French.”

It was a jolting revelation. That man may have had no self-association with African roots, and he most certainly was not American. And why had I not asked where the man wearing the pink shirt was, rather than asking for the black man? This is institutionalized racism.

When I was 21-years-stupid I spent the night in jail after crashing my truck in a DUI. I was the only white woman in a holding cell with three irate black women. They were shouting at the officers outside the cell, complaining that the “white girl” got to keep her shoes, while each of them were cold and barefoot. One of the women had fashioned a pair of shoes for her feet out of toilet paper and was exaggeratingly walking around the cell focusing her anger at me. I was soon moved to a cell by myself.

Had I been treated differently because I was white? This is institutionalized racism.

Then there are the statistics. A 2014 (2014!) study by Center for Economic Policy and Research concluded that black college graduates were twice as likely as whites to struggle to find jobs. And a National Bureau of Economic Research study found that people with “remarkably common” black names had to send 50 percent more job applications than people with “white-sounding names” just to get a call back.

This is institutionalized racism. Once you let yourself see it, it’s there all the time.

The reality is this, I’ll have to talk to my daughter as she grows up about protecting and empowering herself as a woman – that’s another battle. But chances are I won’t have to explain how she needs to protect and empower herself because of her white skin.

Yet, non-white children in this country learn this when their parents give them, “The Talk” – a lengthy explanation about why they are treated differently, how they need to act differently, and how to read between the social norm lines.

My friend Kim has been black her whole life. I have been white my whole life. Because of that, we have had very different experiences, regardless of how we perceive ourselves or each other.

At dinner the night of my ignorant comment, Kim and Tina were the only two black people at our otherwise large party of white co-workers seated at the end of our table. The server had begun taking orders at the opposite end. They were going to be last to order.

“Always holdin’ the black man down,” she had said jokingly.

I hadn’t noticed anything biased about how our orders were taken. Why? Because I’m white and I don’t have a catalog of experiences where I have been blatantly or subtly discriminated against because of my skin color. There may have been nothing race motivated in our server’s mind at all. That’s not the point.

This is the point. I graduated from an inner city high school with a primarily black student body. No one ever gave me a hard time, but as a white girl walking down those halls, I was hyper aware of my skin color. When you’re the minority, you notice.

Part of the white “I’m not racist” argument contains the belief that racism will never end as long as we continue to make everything about race. That if we didn’t make an issue out of whether the shooting cop was white and the victim was black, or whether the Mexican crossing the border illegally is doing it for a better life or to rape and steal, or whether the Middle-Eastern Muslim was praying in the park innocently or as a part of some terrorist plot, then eventually we would all be the same and there would be nothing discriminatory to point out.

Here’s the thing about that, it’s a fantasy. Racism is the framework of our country with white people being the primary beneficiaries. It’s buried so deep in our hard wiring that we don’t notice it, and if we do, we pretend we didn’t. Racism will never end because we keep being defensive about it and because we are unwilling to “notice”.

These are quotes pulled from social media compiled by

“I’m not really racist, but I strongly dislike foreigners and the fact that they don’t speak English.”

“Seriously! What happened to all the white people on Sesame Street? Dude, I’m not racist, but Puerto Ricans and blacks are taking over!”

“Why do the Raiders keep getting black quarterbacks? They never win. Not being racist, but they should be running backs, not quarterbacks.”

As long as we can keep adding, “I’m not racist” to our racist comments, we think we are free and clear?

If we, as people in general, can judge each other every single day by gender, what we wear, what we drive, where we live, who we have sex with, how we vote, or what God we do or do not believe in – than how is race the only thing under the sun excluded from that?

White people need to take an honest look inside and stop saying we are not racist… because we kind of are.

We don’t have to apologize for being a product of systemic racism, or act out some privileged white guilt facade, any more than we have to apologize for being a product of parents we didn’t choose.

What we do have to do is acknowledge an experience other than our own. We must have the awareness to recognize and the courage to speak up when we see and hear institutionalized racism – even within ourselves. It will be humiliating. You will feel ashamed. You will feel like you are slowly melting in a nuclear explosion when you begin to see the institutionalized poison in you buried just under the good person identifiers; when you start to notice stereotypes you think and speak in; when you begin to notice all those subtle systemic pollutions you missed before… but you will live through it.

My friend Kim is a warrior for calling me out the way she did. She could have remained quiet and this whole thing could have been easily glossed over. I could have continued on without questioning myself or acknowledging my silent part in this American institutionalized way of differentiating between races.

But she didn’t. I didn’t. And maybe next time you won’t, either.

*Names changed for anonymity.

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