Back when Obama was first running for office I remember watching t.v. one night, and inevitably someone had gone around asking people their thoughts on the upcoming election. This one guy, he looked like a college kid, replied “I don’t want to sound racist but I don’t think I’m ready for a black president.”
This took me aback. Not because it was racist. Come on, I live in Texas, you think I haven’t heard some s#!% before? No, what surprised me was that he began the sentence with ‘I don’t want to sound racist.’ It was obviously racist. Racism was judging a person by their race. He looked at Obama, said, ‘he’s black, I don’t want him to be president,’ so… what the hell else was it supposed to be.
This actually haunted me for a long time. Not constantly, but it stuck around in the back of my mind, bumping around, occasionally jumping to the forefront of my brain. I’d be sitting in an airport, waiting for a flight, and all the sudden find myself thinking ‘I don’t want to sound racist, but …. I’m not ready for a black president. I don’t want to sound racist…. not ready for a black president.’ Trying desperately to figure out how someone could say those two things in order and not see them as being obviously contradictory in nature.
And then, one day, it clicked.
The problem, I came to realize, was that people looked at racism, and, for that matter, sexism, homophobia, etc etc etc, as binary.
Either you are racist, or you are not racist. Either you are homophobic, or you are not homophobic.
This, I realized, was a problem. A very real and important problem. Why? Because, when people look at these things as binary, all they need to do to prove that they are NOT racist or sexist or homophobic, or whatever, is find someone who is worse.
It’s simple. You start with the question, am I racist? Then you look for examples of racism. The KKK is racist. They burn crosses on people’s yard. They shout racial slurs. They kill people. I do not kill people. I do not shout racial slurs. I do not burn crosses on people’s yard. Clearly, I am not racist.
The net result of that is that I don’t need to examine myself further. I don’t need to ask myself whether I think that those guys over there are up to no good because they are black. That’s what a racist person would do. Me, I’m just aware of my surroundings and following my instincts. I don’t need to ask why it is that I hire so few women at this job. I’m not sexist, I just hire the most qualified person. I mean, I don’t have a mathematical formula for it, but I know I’m not sexist, so my gut must be reliable on these things.
The truth is, none of these things are binary. They are each a spectrum, and we all lie somewhere on it. Hey, maybe there are people whose racism lies at the zero mark, I don’t know, I’m no expert on the subject, what I do know is that mine does not. Not yet. Maybe it will someday, but right now, I have to admit, when I see a group of black men hanging out up ahead of me, chatting and laughing, I get nervous. More nervous than I would if they were white. I’ve made choices based on the color of people’s skin. I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth.
It would be easy enough for me to claim that I am not racist. I could look at the guy who said he didn’t want Obama to be president because he was black and say, ‘I don’t think that way, I’m not like him, clearly I’m not racist,” but to do so would be a mistake. Not just because it would be inaccurate, but because it would make it too easy for me to stop questioning myself, which in turn would mean that I wouldn’t be inclined to improve as a person.
That, I think, is what all of this is about. The thing that we rarely talk about is that people are not, as a rule, entirely at fault for where on the spectrum they begin. We’re not entirely innocent, either, but a lot of our views and beliefs come from where we are born and raised, and who bore us and raised us. At a certain point, yes, we have to take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, but it is, I think, important to acknowledge where we start.
I have a friend who is somewhat more racist than myself. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say, from time to time I find myself thinking, “Oh John Doe, I can’t believe you just said that.”
Some people might wonder why I’m still friends with him.
Here’s the thing. There is a town in Texas where, until the nineties, as I understand it, they had a billboard on the edge of town that essentially said, if you are black, don’t be here after sunset.
My friend lived about ten minutes away from that town. He grew up in the midst of a great deal of racism and bigotry. He has, over the course of his life, worked long and hard, thought deeply, and focused on his behavior and words, and is now only mildly racist.
He isn’t perfect, obviously, but neither am I. And I have to admit, my friend has come a long, long way in his beliefs.
I like to think that I’ve made some progress as well.
And to be honest, I think that progress is the more important measure of a person. The easy path, for all of us, is to declare that this person over here is the problem, not us. All we need to do is condemn them and continue being the good person we know ourselves to be. In order to effect change in the world, however, I think that it’s important that we start with ourselves.
I remember asking a writing friend once if he thought that the novel of mine that he’d read had misogynistic undertones. He informed me that it wasn’t misogynistic because I wasn’t misogynistic. At the time I took great comfort in that. Now, though, I believe that he was wrong. I may not be as sexist as some, but the sexism is there. My responsibility, however, is not to be perfect. My responsibility is to be aware of my failings, realize that they are my problem, not everyone else’s, and try to be better today than i was yesterday.
Anyhow, that’s my view on it. It isn’t perfect, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a little while, and I thought I’d share.