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I remember the first—and only—time I used, the “N” word. I was five, living in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Miss Posey was our nanny.

She was a large black woman who always smelled like menthol cigarettes. The only other thing I remember about her was that she was my favorite person in the world.

“Ain’t Miss Posey a N___r?” I asked in a deep southern drawl.

My parents looked at me shocked. My dad cracked me in the mouth almost before my sentence was complete.

“Where did you learn that word?” my mother asked.

Confused I told her that one of my friend’s parents told me that was what you called black people.

“Don’t ever use that word,” she told me, “it’s the worst word there is.”

And I didn’t. I didn’t see the friend anymore either. I wasn’t allowed to.

And that was how I learned about racism, and generally, I learned that what makes you a racist is saying that word. Only racists say it, and if you don’t say it, you’re not a racist.

Maybe not literally, but that seemed to be the broad distinction.

Then, in high school, I met Nancy, who was a beautiful girl. And, for some reason she liked me. She was black, though, and that confused me. Was it okay for me to like a black girl? Was it okay for me to feel weird about liking a black girl?

I asked her to a dance, and she said yes. We went, but I had trouble reconciling it in my soul. It didn’t feel wrong; felt like I was defying social norms. What felt wrong the most was that it felt wrong at all.

There were a number of black kids in my school, and to challenge my discomfort, I started to get to know them, one by one. I grew close to a number of them. “Half my best friends” are black, I would joke.

In reality, the school I went to was incredibly diverse. Our high-school had 172 kids and represented 36 nations. Not only did we not care what race kids were, we often didn’t even know.

When I moved back to the States, I was living in Virginia and one of the girls I knew, Theresa, invited me to a family gathering in D.C. Sure, I said, not knowing what to expect.

I went out there, and there were at least 40 people there. I was the lone white guy. I had an outstanding time. I enjoyed it enough that 25 years later, I remember how great it was. I learned to eat crab legs. I joked and made friends, and after I’d been there 10 minutes I completely forgot I was the only white guy there.

Then I joined the Air Force, and while I was there my first roommate, Boris, was a black man with a tremendous amount of musical talent and a deep love of music. He broadened my music appreciation, not into hip-hop, but into classic rock, reggae, and jazz. He hated hip-hop as much as I did.

I remember driving to a party once with Boris, and the car got attacked by a pack of feral dogs. They were jumping at the doors, trying to bite through the windows.  We peeled out, got away and pulled over. I pointed at the dog spit running down the passenger window and we laughed until we had to pee.

I got stationed to Italy, where I met Flo, who was the most awesome friend you can have. We had many a drunk talk about life, love (she was gay) and other things.  Mark was my mentor, whom I admired everything about. I had literally dozens of friends who were black. I really didn’t give race a second thought.

I finished my tour in the Air Force and went to college in Minnesota. I had some friends over for dinner one night. The trial of Damian Williams, part of the Gang of Four who had beaten Reginald Denny nearly to death in the throes of the Rodney King riots, had just ended.

The topic came up and we started to debate it. Edgar was arguing the Gang of Four weren’t racist; I was saying they were.

It was in the middle of that argument that it occurred to me while I’d been around black people all my life, been in part raised by them, dated them, been friends with the, lived them, admired them, worked for them, and genuinely love many of them, I’d never really listened to them about race.

I won’t get into the details about the Denny beating vs. the King beating because it’s only relevant here in that it sparked a conversation which lasted for months. It continued with different people,  including the speech writer for Paul Wellstone in different homes and in different contexts.

We started off arguing, but eventually we started talking—really talking—about racism.

I started to become aware that racism was not just about bigotry, using the N' word or arguing for racial supremacy.

But that is all superficial, the most important thing that occurred to us both came one day when I asked Edgar a straightforward question, “Do you think of yourself as a man or black man, Edgar?

“I think of myself as a black man,” he replied.

“Well, I just think of myself as a man” I countered, thinking my answer superior.

“That’s because you can,” he rebutted. Then he explained how that day he’d gone to a corner store that day.

Edgar earned a good living and lived in a well-off neighborhood. The shop owner watched him the whole time he was the store.

There were other people in the store too, but they didn’t get nearly the “attention” that Edgar did.

The owner wouldn’t say it, and he certainly wouldn’t admit if he were asked.

And that’s when it occurred to me, I was an unknowing racist.

Here I had been, existing in my own little world where I’d always assumed that racism was just about how I perceived blacks. It never occurred to me that the other side of that is how blacks are perceived.

There are the ideas of racism, which I don’t hold. But then there is also the institution of racism. The ideas of it are within my power. I can control what goes on in my own mind. But the institution exists, whether I acknowledge it or not.

I can say I don’t see race—because I  really don’t see race—but I’m not constantly evaluated based on my race. I don’t think of myself as a white man because I don’t have someone else looking at me that way every day or week of my life.

I’m not constantly told “You’re a white man” by the world I live in. The black man is. I was raised in a world to go to college, not trade school. It was on my TV. It was in my schools. Who I am as a white man is just a man. Who a black man is really is portrayed differently to him.

White people have a different kind of self-identity because they’re allowed to. Blacks can gain the view that they can grow up to be successful too, but they have to overcome the way society looks at them in order to do it. Whites don’t.

Blacks receive less education, less income, and get incarcerated at a higher rate. They don’t live in the same world. The institution exists. I won’t get into a big stat-filled explanation, but suffice to say, it does. If you want proof, start with Googling “institutional racism. My objective isn’t to prove it here, it’s merely to acknowledge it as something separate from the idea of racism.

The problem is that whites who aren’t racist very rarely stop to think about racism beyond their own experience. Many whites, be they Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Party are not “racist” in the sense that they think they are better than blacks. Sure, there might be some, but the vast majority aren’t.

Because we’re not racist we don’t think about our race. If we see racism in action, many of us—from all parties—would step in and say something. You can genuinely say, and mean, that if you saw a black person being denied service for being black, you would do something about it. But that’s just an incident of racism, not the institution.

The problem is that many of the same people who defend a black man in a racist incident will say things like, “how come Black Entertainment Television isn’t racist?” or “What about BlackPeopleMeet.com?” They ask “Why are black people allowed to use the N’ word, but not me?” They talk about affirmative action, calling it “reverse racism.” They’ll parse between black people and their “culture” of living off of welfare and food stamps.

Again, on each of these, I could go on a 2,000 word tangent, but I’m trying to restrain myself.

It all reveals a basic problem: All that shows a lack of understanding of institutional racism. And when we ignore the institution we perpetuate it. How else can you explain that in a society where most people agree that racism is wrong, the institution remains?

And this raises the truly insidious damage of Sterling’s remarks. I’m not worried about his use of the words dogs, or saying don’t bring blacks to me game.  I’m worried about the larger context of his thoughts. He didn’t want those things to happen because the society he lives in judges it for him.

Sterling would tell you that he wasn’t being racist; he’s just being pragmatic. He didn’t say he didn’t like black people. He didn’t defend racism. He said just don’t embarrass me by posting pictures of yourself on Instagram with black people. Essentially he’s arguing, other people are racist, and they’ll think less of me.” That seems innocent, but it’s a far more insidious type of cancer.

He denies the existence of his racism while defending the institution of it. And that’s the problem we face today. We as white Americans are more lenient towards that because deep down, we understand we benefit from it, but to do something about it means giving up those benefits.

I heard a comparison in college. There are two men in a one mile race, one in a blue shirt and one in a red shirt. They must take four trips around the track. But, before things begin, one is required to wear an ankle weight.

The man in the blue shirt gallops to an easy lead, but halfway through the race someone says, “Wait, this isn’t right!” and the race is stopped. How do you finish the race fairly at that point?

You could put the weight on the man in the blue shirt, but it wasn’t his fault that the red-shirted man had to bear the extra weight. Why should you punish him for something he had nothing to do with? You could move Red Shirt up, and place him even with Blue Shirt, but he’s already spent more energy. If you move him ahead of Red Shirt, he has to run less distance.

The point is that we look at affirmative action and we talk about “fairness” but just as in the hypothetical race above, there is no fair solution. The institution exists. A chunk of the country has been wearing ankle weights.

If the guy in the blue shirt acknowledges what’s happened and says, “You know, the only fair thing is that I wear the ankle weight” that offers the only fair solution.  

It’s unfair if you force him wear it. It’s fair if he offers to wear it. It’s time for white America to embrace letting go of the institution. Only white America can solve racism, not by not being racist, but by acknowledging and voluntarily surrendering the advantages that come with its institution.

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Comment Preferences

  •  very well done and agreed (10+ / 0-)

    white people everywhere think they are not racists but they do end up supporting the institutional racism that exists in our society.

    there are plenty of racists down here. most older white folks i've worked with down here are racist. i know a jewish man who doesn't express his religion and tries to fit in, by parroting the racist water cooler talk that tends to happen on a daily basis. the peer pressure is serious. it's so conservative down here among white folks. glad that's changing and hope Hillary will have long coattails.

    -You want to change the system, run for office.

    by Deep Texan on Thu May 01, 2014 at 02:31:16 PM PDT

  •  as a black man, I don't think you are/were racist (21+ / 0-)

    To me racism is different from ignorance, which is different from prejudice (although ignorance obviously plays a role in racism and prejudice).

    Nothing you said in that whole story exhibited racism to me.  i didn't see anything really that exhibited prejudice.  You obviously admitted to some ignorance about the difference between experiences of AA and experiences of White Americans, but that's not racism or prejudice.

    You did and acted exactly like someone should act in life, you treated people on their merits, you tried to understand things from their point of view, and you looked at your own ignorance and adjusted it when necessary.

    Would that everyone did that.  Sterling certainly does none of that.  He is absolutely racist, and also prejudice.  The latter is about beliefs, the former the power to use those beliefs to the detriment of others.

    I think a better, albeit less thought-provoking, title is, How I learned I was Ignorant of Race...or something.  

    I use an example of your race analogy all the time.  In the end there is no "fair" solution.  Fairness left when the starting gun sounded and one person was wearing an ankle weight.  At some point, you can only come up with an equitable solution.

    To me that means the person who wore the ankle weight is given assistance to get to the point where they are in an equitable position with the person who ran free.  Maybe that means decreasing the distance to approximate the burden of wearing an ankle weight, or giving them help to run faster for a period of time (or run easier) until they've reached parity and can compete freely without any weight.

    I agree you don't make the other runner wear weights (especially since the other runner wasn't even around when the weights were first put on).

  •  If I could recommend this Diary 100 times, I would (15+ / 0-)

    Thank you, Backell.  I identify with so much of this, and feel the truth of it deeply.

    Wonderful essay and perspective; kudos and kull wahad.  I hope this writing manages to get exposure far beyond the world of dKos (not that I trivialize dKos, just saying this kind of piece needs to be in the national mindspace).

    Not all people are human; not all humans are people.

    by Jon Sitzman on Thu May 01, 2014 at 03:02:54 PM PDT

  •  great diary (12+ / 0-)

    You have hit some very valid points.  Race has always been a non-issue for me.  Yeah, my parents were somewhat bigoted, but they didn't try to teach that to me.  For the most part I've just always accepted people as people.  But that perspective seems to be held by a minority of people.  A couple of weeks ago I was describing to a co-worker how a woman assaulted me in the parking lot at the grocery store.  I still don't know why, and she really scared me.  The co-worker immediately started to ask me if the woman was black and when I said that she was started carrying on with some totally disgusting remarks.  I guess that I knew that she holds those views, but it's not a factor in my consciousness.  

      But I feel the day is coming when those of us who feel 'live and let live' are going to have to take a stand.  Things are going backwards in this country.  As a child I remember seeing the reports on the news from Selma and Birmingham and I fear those days are coming back.  Although it's no longer just about race, it's gender and freedom of and from religion and I fear for the future of our country and our future.

    sometimes the dragon wins

    by kathy in ga on Thu May 01, 2014 at 03:19:29 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this thought provoking diary. (7+ / 0-)

    We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. B. Franklin

    by Observerinvancouver on Thu May 01, 2014 at 03:34:13 PM PDT

  •  All these years (7+ / 0-)

    I hadn't thought about racism from that angle (I'm white). Thank you!

  •  I had a sort of similar epiphany (12+ / 0-)

    I'm male. Never thought about it. Noticed the difference early on, but it was mostly in the attraction area and not day-to-day living. I've been married for over 43 years and have been informed of many of my shortcomings with regularity.

    However, one day a few years ago—and I can't even tell you what prompted it—I ran over to the store to get something. It might have been after dark, although that doesn't change the premise. I parked in a spot, climbed out of the car, and ambled in, with not a care in the world. I came out the same way.

    Then it struck me. I'll bet my wife can't do that. So when I got home, I asked her. "When you go to the mall, are you ever concerned about getting from the car into the store and vice versa?"

    She said, "yes," with hardly a pause.

    Men go through routine life with hardly a care for meeting some miscreant who might take advantage, but a woman is at risk practically every time she steps out that some man—biggerand stronger—than her might do her harm. What a hell of a way to have to go through life.

    I'm in no way trying to equate sexism with racism, although there are components common to each. I just thought I'd share something that seemed profound. Maybe I've just been clueless all along…like she's been saying…

    LRod—UID 238035
    ZJX, ORD, ZAU retired
    My ATC site
    My Norm's Tools site

    by exatc on Thu May 01, 2014 at 04:14:00 PM PDT

  •  I always "see" colour+culture in people I meet, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    backell, Lujane, kaliope

    including the white ones.  Ever since a young black man in college physically threatened me for a slyly racist remark I made, while he was slightly drunk on a Saturday.  It went from joshing around to deadly serious in about 2 seconds, essentially.  His actions started me on the path to cultural sobriety, I feel.

    This is why I tend to watch other people when a lone person of colour enters a shop in which I'm shopping: I'm looking for signs of bias in others, while  hoping to maintain my own form of sobriety on racial matters.  It's a well-worn habit to check on myself and others who might assume racial hierarchies as starting points, but that's the flipside of a primary issue you raise: most of us white folk don't think about it all.

    "So, please stay where you are. Don't move and don't panic. Don't take off your shoes! Jobs is on the way."

    by wader on Thu May 01, 2014 at 05:05:09 PM PDT

  •  Is this a racist remark? (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    backell, offgrid, liberaldad2, kaliope

    My Mother, now deceased, and I had many  conversations on racism later in her life.  She was convinced of the superiority of the White race, with Biblical justifications.   In her mind, this did not make her or my Father racists.   It was God's will.   In fact, she said with great pride,  that my Father constantly said that he thanked God that he had not been born black.  Mind boggling.

    During the Civil Rights Law  legal deliberations, a great many studies were conducted to demonstrate the existence of discrimination.  One study was conducted among young black girls.  They were asked to pick the prettiest baby dolls,  the white one or the black one.  Consistently, they picked the white baby doll.  Yes, repeatedly being humiliated does work to undermine self-esteem.  Calling a 60 year old black man "boy" also has that effect.  Especially when he must refer to a 60 year old White man as  Mr.  

    I was also raised the South.  And carry around deeply ingrained fears and prejudices.  The difference is, some work to repress and overcome those fears and feelings.  Others work to  cultivate, reinforced and justify their bigotry.  It somehow makes them feel superior.   No matter how bad things  may get, or how poor they may become, they can still thank God they are not black.

    Now that is pathetic.  It also amounts to an acknowledgement that Black people are victims of discrimination just because they  are Black.

  •  I never knew why I supported affirmative action (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kaliope

    I just knew that not everyone had gotten a fair shake at this life, yet.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Thu May 01, 2014 at 05:54:57 PM PDT

  •  Only fair solution is a "White Tax" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kaliope

    I believe that white privilege should not come without cost. Whites must pay a certain percentage of their income, no matter their pay scale, to a pool that fairly distributes said monies by reparational means to African Americans. In addition, this tax should be administered in perpetuity, at least until racial balance has been achieved in society where whites and African Americans make up the same percentage.  

     I know I will get a lot of flack about this, but I defy anyone to come up with a fairer solution. I seriously would like to hear of any solution that would help negate the societal handicap African Americans face every moment of their lives that would compensate African Americans in a fairer manner.

    •  Interesting idea. This country is a money-based (0+ / 0-)

      culture. We generally seem to measure things in $$$ or "advantage" (which refers in itself to $$$, our only culturewide standard for "value"). And we also know how to restrain ourselves (even if only eventually) when we've finally had to fork over dough to someone "our kind" has wronged...in doing so, forking over the money, we confirm the necessary lesson has been learned.

      Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings. —Nelson Mandela

      by kaliope on Fri May 02, 2014 at 03:00:43 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I love this post and all the comments (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kaliope

    This is one big reason why I love hanging with progressives.  I guarantee you, even though I have many intelligent conservative friends, I could never have this discussion with them.  They invariably come back to "Blacks need to learn to pull themselves up by their bootstraps" or "Blacks are hurt by affirmative action more than they are helped" - totally oblivious to the fact that Blacks and other minorities live in a hostile world that Whites don't even see.  

    I grew up in a blue-collar all-white suburb.  Even though we didn't have a lot, I recognized early that I was the beneficiary of white privilege.  That all my life choices benefited from my race, that I had role models that many less fortunate kids didn't have, and that I didn't have to worry every day about just surviving.  This is what conservatives don't get.  And I can't explain it to them.

    Thanks so much for writing this.  

    'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none go just alike, yet each believes his own. - Alexander Pope

    by liberaldad2 on Thu May 01, 2014 at 08:42:19 PM PDT

  •  T&R'd, bookmarked for community edu! Thanks (0+ / 0-)

    for posting this diary.

    Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings. —Nelson Mandela

    by kaliope on Fri May 02, 2014 at 02:49:43 AM PDT

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