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.

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."

"You got that right," he agreed grimly, as if I'd narrowly escaped the noose. It's a wonder we didn't flash each other black power salutes. But the moment the words were out of my mouth, I was ashamed. Worse: I felt stupid.

Who am I kidding? I'm an attorney. The lots are so big in my deer-filled suburb that I had to drive from neighbor to neighbor to collect petition signatures for a local election. In fact, we rarely even use that usurped driveway because we have two. My architect husband is white as are our two children. (So far. Biracial kids often darken over time.) The local police are just as respectful of me as they are of my neighbors, whatever they might be thinking. Whether or not I should fear them, I don't.

It is a testament to the enduring legacy of racism that a black grandfather still doing manual labor bothered to side with either me or my squatter. He should have said to hell with the both of you and played dumb, leaving the two of us to fight over our possessions. I'm guessing he'd also witnessed his feudal lord take arrogant possession of a stranger's property and that this had pushed all his buttons, too. The fact that I turned out to be black was the icing on the cake.

In a way, I'm arguing for class warfare to replace racial warfare. Class conflict makes sense; it keeps the powerful from riding roughshod over senior citizens who can't retire from manual labor in the hot sun. The truth is, I have far more in common with the rich white man than I do with that poor black grandfather (who would never dare to park on private property in this neighborhood). A world of perfect harmony would be lovely, but until the rapture comes I'd rather blue-collar types of all races faced off against us "suits" than one race against the other. There is nothing logical, natural, or beneficial about a world organized by race—the very concept is irrational. Any system divided along racial lines, implicitly or overtly, will be immoral, inefficient, and unstable. (Take, for example, poor whites' hatred of slaves, rather than of slavery, for depressing wages.)

Class conflict, on the other hand, is natural and rational. It brought us the minimum wage, OSHA, Social Security, the weekend, overtime, pensions, and the like. While none of those are unmitigated successes, a system organized along class lines acknowledges that capitalism doesn't police itself and that labor must have a voice—it wasn't the capitalists who pushed for child labor laws and the eight-hour work day. Everybody loses when societal goods are distributed on the basis of race, even those in the front of the bus. Bigotry is just plain stupid, but as long as the price of examining one's prejudices is expulsion from the human race, we're never going to be able to quash it.

When I realized that I had internalized the world's loathing of blacks, my first response was, counterintuitively, relief. Finally, I have proof that blacks' obsession with racism isn't crazy. If I secretly think that many poor blacks are animalistic and stupid, you'll never make me believe that lots of other people don't, too. My lasting response has been chagrined amusement to realize that I hold such ridiculous, illogical notions. Most of all, acknowledging my own racism has given me a measure of compassion for how difficult it is to retain one's humanity in such a politicized and inhumane world. I'm black and I make my living thinking about race, but I still wasn't immune to the insidious bigotry in our world. How much harder it must be for those with far less time to contemplate and come to terms with these vexing social issues.

It's not bigotry per se that hamstrings us in the struggle to achieve a just society. It's our inability to talk about and think our way through our preconceptions. We have to learn how to forgive each other, and more importantly ourselves, when we're stupid.

Debra Dickerson is the author of The End of Blackness andAn American Story.