Growing up I thought racism was dead and gone. I’m not sure anyone taught me that directly, but the civil rights movement was in my history book and things only get in there if they are passed. It was clear in that book that MLK won the fight. Back then Michael Jordan was hands down the biggest star on the Earth , followed closely by Bill Cosby. It wasn’t hard to see that things were great.
But Since those days I have seen some things I was blind to before. I saw most of them by happenstance or by stumbling down a road less traveled, rather than by having gained some superior third eye. No, I’m still the same guy I was then, no smarter or better, I just learned some stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise. Many, I might guess most, of those I grew up with haven’t been down those roads and could easily still see things the same way I did when I was one of them. For the most part, when I write, I have them, and me, in mind.
Racism still exists and has existed all throughout that gap between MLK and now. It has existed and continues to exist all this time in large part because so many white people can’t see it. There are those who won’t see it, but I think it mostly persists not because of those willfully ignorant, but more due to the innocently ignorant. White people, like myself and the ones I grew up with, normally can’t see it because so many of us are white people living around so many other white people. Almost every black person I know can, and has, seen it.
Why the discrepancy?
It is not unusual for my family and I to find ourselves in the car for long periods of time. We live outside of LA and out here any time you get in a car you will likely be in it for a long period of time. Any time you are in a car for a long time it is likely that your children in the back seat will get thirsty and probably throw a tantrum. This is normal, nay, inevitable, for us and we have learned to always have water bottles in the car. On one occasion as kid number two started to melt down in the backseat, my responsible wife responded appropriately by grabbing the water bottle from her cup holder and passing it to the child in the back. Good job.
What my wife did not realize was that when she was passing the metal bottle to the back she unintentionally smacked me in the side of the head. It hurt. I wasn’t injured, but it hurt enough to be really unpleasant and it affected my mood. This has happened more than once. It isn’t always a water bottle, sometimes I am hit in the face with snacks, I have gotten crayon stripes across my shoulder, chocolate on my lapels, all sorts of collateral damage of front seat trying to pacify back seat. None of these small injuries are independently consequential and almost none of them are intentional. In fact most of them would be completely unnoticed by my wife if I didn’t point them out. Better yet, none of these small injuries even happen when I am not in the car.
But that is me and my family in a car. That isn’t really American race relations.
I rarely hear anyone say the N-word or anything negative about us when my wife and I are together in public. I have however heard several people use the n word when my black wife isn’t around. Those who choose to apologize don’t apologize for using the word but rather offer that they would never have said that “if they had known”. As if I should only be offended because of my relationship rather than the idea being inherently offensive.
I have never had the n word spray painted on my door. It doesn’t usually work that way these days. No, it works more like the white lady out trick-or-treating with her little girl who refused to take candy from my wife. She took candy from the door right before us, and candy from the door right after us, but while looking right at my wife she steered her child away. My little daughter was confused by the slight and wanted us to explain. My parents never found themselves in such a situation.
There was that other time when my wife had to stop her car in the middle of the road because some guy was just standing there. It was a four lane throughway and this guy was just standing there looking the other way not going anywhere. After waiting for more than a reasonable amount of time she honked the horn. The guy turned around and yelled “Get outta the car N—er!” He walked over to the passenger door and started kicking it yelling over and over “Get out of the car N—er!” He was obviously angry, probably crazy, potentially drunk. But crazy mad drunk people can use a lot of angry words, yet in this instance, when faced with my wife, he used that word. That is the one he chose. My wife got home angry and crying with dents in the side of the car demanding I do something. She hadn’t waited to ask his name, she didn’t sit there idle waiting for him to get the door open, she got away. And once danger wasn’t immediate she was hurt, scared, and angry and demanded action. We got in the car and went to the location together. She tried to describe what he looked like and where he was and back there in that place we realized there were a lot of people here matching that description and none of them were going to point out the perpetrator or even admit that he existed. There wasn’t anything we could do. Nothing at all. But there were still very real dents in the passenger side door and very real impressions on my wife.
There was that one really hot day where we sat on our stoop eating a box of popsicles. A neighborhood boy was pedaling his bike back and forth and upon seeing us hand a popsicle to some other kid, he stopped and asked for one too. My wife gave him one. He stood straddling his bike eating the popsicle and we talked. My wife said it was hot and he agreed. My wife commented something about it being too hot to be out running around and that perhaps swimming would be a good option. He agreed and said he goes swimming all the time. There was at this time a public pool no more than 100 yards from our home, same as this boy’s home, and my wife asked if this was where he swam. He replied with surprising comfort that his mother wouldn’t let him swim there, because there were too many black people. My wife calmly asked the boy what he thought of this prohibition. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t agree with it, then pedaled on down the street eating the black woman’s popsicle.
None of these things are a burning cross or even all that big in the grand scheme of things, but they happened and none of my white peers from youth ever see such things in their day to day lives. They do not see or experience such things and consequentially find it hard to believe that there is a racial component when I also tell of how a police officer pulled over my wife due to a burned out taillight. It was in fact burned out, but when I uncrumpled the ticket that the officer had scrunched up and tossed in the window, I saw we had been cited for two broken taillights not one. A police officer has never thrown a ticket at me. They doubt the racial component of me getting pulled over in the black part of town after picking up my black friend. The cop said I hadn’t stopped at a stop sign (not true) and then launched quickly into a list of questions about me, my destination, my intentions, and my legitimacy. Many of my peers from youth do not see why I would be bothered by this since I wasn’t given a ticket. They think I won.
So many of my white peers, people I love, go about their lives watching the news, interpreting politics, listening to commentators, and form opinions. So many of these people, and sometimes myself, go about forming allegiances, joining parties, and venting frustrations, without realizing that they are hitting people in the head with water bottles. Or more often, they are passing water bottles safely to the back seat not appreciating that they are doing so because the passenger seat is empty. All the while my wife, my children, and so many people like them, are getting smacked in the head every day.