Racist like me.

Better ideas.
Aug. 11 2004 12:09 PM

Racist Like Me

Why am I the only honest bigot?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

In a nation riven to its very core by race, I appear to be the only remaining racist. Off and on, I'm homophobic and anti-Semitic, too, but mostly, I'm racist. Yet unlike the rest of you, I'm honest about it.

I'm the only person I know who routinely admits to being a racist. When I redeemed my Mother's Day spa package, I was assigned a lovely young black woman as my aesthetician. As we chatted, I found myself searching for words. Eventually, I realized I was trying to find a way to ask about her credentials. In 20 years of spa trips, I have never had a black aesthetician, and I have never thought, let alone asked, about one's competence, even when they disappoint me. It appears that I, too, think black people are stupid, uninformed, and graceless. Criminal, too—day before yesterday, after finalizing the details of working in a public housing complex, I dreamt that night of herds of rapacious, animalistic blacks robbing, assaulting, and generally terrorizing me there. (Birth of a Nation was more subtle.) So, counting yesterday's incident, which I will recount shortly, that makes twice just this week that I was a racist.

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It was yesterday's incident that got me thinking about how racism is lived. The New York Times recently won a Pulitzer for a series on how race is lived, but that's not quite the same thing, is it? Most of us agree that racism is far from dead and that we're all responsible for helping to end it. And yet, so charged is the issue of race that it is virtually impossible for those who do not already agree about it to discuss it. Without a free exchange of ideas, progress is not very likely; conservatives will continue to preach to their choir and liberals will do the same.

Here's an example: A gay friend was being cavalier and dismissive, I thought, about the least divergence from the gay agenda, even by a pro-gay person like me. He wouldn't even entertain the notion that, say, lesbians in a women's locker room could legitimately give one pause. It shouldn't be a long pause (given that they've always been there), but give me a break. From the look on his face, you'd have thought that I had said he was going to sodomite hell. "Oh Debra. From you?" I argued that a man would never be allowed into a women's locker room—even if he were physically incapable of either sex or violence (I also made him blind for good measure). My friend sighed deeply, looked to the heavens as if praying for patience, and then grandly "forgave" me by abruptly changing the subject. Clearly, he considered any such discussion homophobic, a designation I escaped solely on the strength of our friendship. But why couldn't we discuss it? The notion that "victim" status exempts him from the need to examine, explain, or defend his beliefs is a dangerous one indeed. That was the perfect moment both to prove to himself that he'd thought things through, and to educate someone who could go forth and spread knowledge. Instead, we just showed each other that you can love and respect someone and yet know that they can sometimes be self-righteous, intolerant, and anti-intellectual.

One reason for bigotry's maddening intractability is that a determination—however knee-jerk, superficial, or unthinkingly made—that something or someone is racist ends the discussion, as happened with my friend. The verdict is "guilty" and the only punishment is forfeiture of the right to consider yourself a decent human being. Better to be a necrophiliac than an admitted bigot. Yet if we are to evolve on the issue of race, the notion that you, or someone else, is racist ought to function as the beginning of the attainment of full humanity, not the proof that you've relinquished it. Realizing with each incident that I was operating from a no-longer-quite-subconscious script about race allowed me to recognize, and then confront, the hateful notions I have internalized about blacks. Worse, it allowed me to see that having experienced racism had helped turn me into one: It turns out that I have a problem with whites, too.

Yesterday, I watched a white man park his truck in my driveway and walk off down the road without even a glance to see if the owners were about so he could ask permission. The sense of entitlement and ownership he exuded pushed every race-, gender- and class-based button a black girl from the inner city has to push. Guys like that have been pushing the world (read: me) around forever. Still, I tried to shrug it off. Then, when I went out for the mail two hours later, I was furious to see his truck still on my property. In full Gloria Steinem meets Fannie Lou Hamer mode, I marched down the road to the construction site where I figured he'd gone.

At the site, a gaggle of "Joe College"-type shirtless white boys were goofing off, and a grandfatherly black man halfheartedly directed nonexistent traffic. As I approached, the black man perked up, glad to see me in this extremely white part of an extremely white city in an extremely white region. Or perhaps he was glad because now he wasn't the only adult. The white guys, suddenly busy with their rakes, feigned blindness.

"Whose truck—"

The black man strode over and pointed gleefully at the man who was clearly in charge. "The green hat! That's his truck." How had he known what I was going to say?

With happy spite, the black man watched as I exchanged a few words with my squatter and saluted me as the man who must be his boss followed me shamefacedly to move his truck. As I passed the brother, I said evilly, "If I'd parked on his property, the police would be here."

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