June 27, 2013

The furtive look of Racism

So having breathed a sigh of relief that the horrific racist rhetoric being thrown around during the past two elections were finally past, we are now in the throes of yet another scandal. This time a minor television celebrity who is renowned for her Southern style was revealed to have a pretty unsavory recent past history of racism and sexism, at least towards those who worked for her. 
The revelations coming from her testimony under oath revealed behaviour that was frankly abhorrent, but honestly mild compared to things being broadcast by "infotainers" during recent elections regarding the President of the United States! 
I have read several well-reasoned blog posts from varying points of view by people of color which discuss the cultural context of the behaviour exhibited.
So why am I not just shrugging and saying "Calm your tits!"?
Here's why:
I am a white woman who has spent a significant portion of my life in areas with very ingrained and institutionalized racism. My father's family were very racist, and I heard the language of racism from a young age. I was also fortunate to have parents who were committed to raising children who did not suffer from that sad affliction, and we were taught young that the language of racism was one of fear. We were told that our grandparents were to be pitied, because they were afraid of everyone who looked at all different from themselves. So I grew up to be a big 'ol liberal!
But living in places with ingrained racism when you are white can be a bizarre experience. You recognize the warning signs - the furtive glance around to ensure that there are no people of color within hearing range - before something is said. A racist statement, a horrible joke, a nasty slur, some filthy gossip. And then the knowing nod, that says "you're white so you understand what I mean".
And this may come from someone you don't know at all, from a coworker, from your boss, from a pastor, from anywhere. And each and every time you have to decide what you are going to do. 
If you say nothing? You just agreed. Like it or not, your silence IS consent. Laugh, and pretend they are joking? Still agreeing. So how do you call them on it? Apologetically? Stridently? 
Of course it depends on who you are talking to - it is very, very hard to call out someone you are asking for money, or a loan, or a reference, or a job.
I have very little good sense, and an overdeveloped sense of justice, so I tended to just explain that it is NOT ok to speak like that to me in any way shape or form, ever. And I deeply resent your assumption that it would be ok.
In stickier social situations, I would just choose that time to pull out photos of my first husband and several of his nieces and nephews (ok, so maybe someone MIGHT think they were mine *evil grin*). This is the "now I make you feel like an asshole" portion of the program, where the offender got to sputter about how they REALLY aren't racist.
Now that I'm older, I think I am going to go back to carrying some photos in my wallet I can pull out and show photos of my grandbabies (I'll need to borrow some from friends), and maybe a photo of my niece and her date in their prom dresses!! 
In the meantime?
Paula - what you said and did is offensive, inappropriate, and unacceptable. And you knew it when you said it and did it, because I know you furtively peered around first to see who was in hearing range. And the fact that people are willing to cut you some slack over it? Is because THEY are awesome people.