When racism rears its head

By Erica Motter in Opinions

April 5, 2012


On Saturday, while working at my job as a grocery store manager, a man coming through a checkout line ruined my morning. He spotted a magazine on the rack displaying a front-page story about Trayvon Martin, with the headline “An American Tragedy.”

“Tragedy my a–,” he said to the girl at the register, and then proceeded to go on a verbal tirade about how a man has a right to defend himself, and how he would have shot Trayvon too (with some rather offensive racial slurs thrown into the mix). He kept saying, “If someone is armed and attacks me…”

I did my best to remain calm and professional, but I couldn’t stand it and my anger bubbled over.

“A bag of Skittles!” I called to him. “He had a bag of Skittles, not a gun. I’m sure he could really have done a lot of damage with that bag of Skittles!”

The man seemed surprised, but just cockily told us to “have a nice day,” and left.

Ha. Have a nice day. After that encounter, I was nearly shaking with anger for 20 minutes, and even after I’d calmed down, I still couldn’t stop thinking about the whole incident.

Why in the world would that man think he had the right to make such ill-informed, racist comments to a couple of young girls working in a supermarket? Did he think we were going to agree with him? Or, more likely, was he just trying to push some boundary, daring us to say something back to him?

Over the past several days, I got to thinking about a lot of racist things that people think are OK to say.

I always hesitate to write about race, since I’m a white woman and therefore not a racial minority. I never want to make assumptions or portray an issue incorrectly since I don’t belong to the races that I discuss.

But I personally feel strongly about racial equality, and this time, I want to call out other white people for some of the racist things they say and do pretty often and think are OK.

1. Assuming that we’re in the same “white club”

This is the first thing that I thought of, as a direct result of Saturday’s incident.

As I said before, that man in the store was probably just trying to be antagonistic, and he’s an extreme example.

But this same thing happens on a smaller scale all the time. Other white people I know feel like it’s okay for them to make racist or stereotypical statements when they are in the presence of other white people. It’s as though they think I’ll agree with them, or at least not judge them for the things they’re saying.

News flash: Racial sensitivity is not just a “front” for you to put up in public situations or when you’re around people of other races. Just because I’m white and you’re white does not mean that it’s okay for you to tell me that you’ve felt distrustful of foreigners ever since 9/11 when we’re alone together.

I’m still judging you, and I’m sure not going to agree with you just because I have the same color skin as you do.

2. Insisting that racism is a thing of the past

This is usually said by well-meaning, but uninformed white people

I will hear people say, “I think we need to stop making race an issue. I have a big group of friends, and some of them are black, and this one guy is from India, and we treat everyone the same. It’s not awkward or racially tense.”

You know what, it’s awesome that you and your friends are all so accepting and comfortable with people of all races.

But the problem occurs when you think that your personal situation is the norm everywhere.

The truth is, racism is still rampant in a lot of different ways in this country, and by denying its existence, you’re stunting progress that could be made to combat it.

Think about it–if there is no problem, why would we try to solve something?

The fact is that there are still problems with race that need to be addressed. So keep doing your thing by being accepting, but please understand that not every minority is as lucky as your friends to be accepted and treated equally.

3. Only disliking one race, and therefore considering themselves not racist

Some people think that to be racist, you have to have animosity for all races that aren’t your own.

Not true.

I know plenty of people who think they aren’t racist because they have absolutely no problem with African-Americans or Asians. But when you start talking to them about illegal immigration or the situation in the Middle East, it becomes quickly apparent that they either think all Mexicans are illegal immigrants who need to “get out” or every Middle Easterner they sit next to on a plane is about to hijack it.

This is still racism. It’s good that you don’t hate EVERYONE, I guess, but if you still hate some groups of people, even if you like other minorities, you’re still being racist.

4. Talking about “reverse racism”

This is hard for me to take seriously, but it’s something I actually hear people say.

First of all, the term “reverse racism” itself is ridiculous–it implies that white people hating other people is racism, but anyone being racist towards whites is “reverse.”

It’s just perpetuating an “us-them” dichotomy by taking possession over a word, and continuing to associate “racism” with people in power.

While I do agree that there are some members of other races who truly do feel negatively towards white people and that could certainly be classified as racism, I most often hear this term applied to policies that attempt to advance minority rights.

Most often, I hear whites claim that Affirmative Action is “reverse racism.” The fact of the matter is that many minorities, especially African-Americans, have been disenfranchised to the point of not even being considered humans in the past.

The Civil Rights movement was only 50 years ago—that’s really not that long, and African-Americans are often still at a disadvantage simply as a result of starting out so far behind whites in the game of life.

Most initiatives to promote diversity are just trying to level the playing field. Whites are privileged in so many areas of life, and a fear that they may be somehow put at a disadvantage to minorities is ridiculous.

5. Assuming that “good” stereotypes are fine

“All Asians are good at math.” You’ve probably heard that one, or maybe even said it yourself.

The statement doesn’t sound negative—after all, you’re complimenting an entire race!

But that’s the problem: you’re making a generalization about an entire race.

While it’s definitely not as bad as perpetuating a negative stereotype about a group of people, it’s still judging a large, heterogeneous group as all being “the same” in some way.

There are probably plenty of Asians who struggle with math, African Americans who aren’t fantastic basketball players, and Indians who aren’t doctors. But I’m sure these same people have all sorts of other unique qualities that make them fascinating individuals.

The point is, you cannot and should not assume something about people just because of their race or ethnicity, even if you’re assuming something positive.

Many whites may think that this list is overly strict or too uptight to follow, but in reality it just requires a different way of thinking.

Just because you may have engaged in one or even all of these activities does not mean you’re a terrible person or that you hate certain races. It could just mean that you haven’t realized what you’re doing or never considered that you could be offending others.

In the future, before you make a generalization like the ones listed above, stop and ask yourself if you’re stereotyping or saying something that might be somehow negative to a group of people. When someone around you says something racist, don’t stay quiet—speak up! You might make some people mad, but you also might make them think more carefully about how they treat others.

Racism is still a very real, and in some cases, very serious issue. But a society full of individuals fighting against racism can eventually give way to a society that conquers it. So don’t stop fighting.


One thought on “When racism rears its head

  1. lenasclove says:

    I am white and have been in involved in trying to unpack and understand my white privilege while being involved with antiracist activism and organizing for many years. Your writing about the assumption of us all being in the same “white club” is very important. I have often had white people say horrendous things to me thinking it’s “safe” to be their true racist selves just because I myself am white. The “positive” side of this is that it offers an opportunity to call them out, and potentially educate them–something that as white people we need to be doing so this education doesn’t continue to fall on the shoulders of folks of color. The negative side is that we have to pick our battles–the gentleman in the grocery doesn’t sound like he was interested in hearing a voice other than his own. There are people who might listen and there are people who won’t and we don’t have endless hours in the day. http://lenasclove.com/2014/12/09/whites-gotta-open-up-the-willingness-to-unlearn-racism/
    Thanks so much for your post!

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