But don't you like tacos? I love them like my firstborn. I thought you loved The Help. I adored it. You aren't from the South, though ... That's right.
I'm from Boise, Idaho. 89% white according to the Greek god of knowledge, Wikipedia. All the black people I knew there were adopted or else one of their parents was white (the latter: 1 girl). I had one friend who was half-Mexican, but most of the Hispanics I knew of were the guys cutting my neighbors' lawns. One of my best friends is 1/4 Japanese, but whatever Asian-ness she possessed was always a tally in the cool column. (Your family eats sushi? Awesome.)
I wouldn't call my parents racists ... but they never frowned when a Mexican joke graced the dinner table conversation. My dad tells a great one about some caballeros in a fly-infested bar (or is about a Chinese guy? I forget). They never said anything like "white people are better than black people," but they never said anything like "black people are just as good as white people" either. We do call my mother "mujer" affectionately, though we spell it "moo-hair." Is that racist?
Did you know that racism is inevitable in children unless you deliberately prevent its development? (So says NurtureShock, an awesome book about child development.) Unsurprisingly, it's natural to look for ways to form groups with shared identities, and skin color is a simple place for little kids to start when making divisions. An "us vs them" mentality easily follows, and kids are more likely to favor the "us" at the cost of the "them." I'm not citing this as an excuse for my racism--just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's right.
|You're shaping me like a little ball of clay, parents. Please make sure I'm not shaped like a racist when I'm grown.|
I'm not alone in my racism. More than one friend has talked openly with me about getting their kids into a school with low poverty rates (implying less Hispanics/blacks--"low poverty rates" is the euphemism we are comfortable with so we don't feel so blatantly racist--we admit this much in hushed tones during the discussion). These moms explain that their kids shouldn't be minorities at school when that doesn't reflect the demographics of their mostly white neighborhood (overcrowding at school in lower-income areas has apparently led to students being bused to school in more affluent areas--i.e. Hispanics coming to previously "white schools."). As I listen to these mothers I feel conflicting emotions: 1) I'm so glad Graham isn't old enough to go to school yet, 2) Do you realize how racist you sound right now?, and 3) I totally agree; I wouldn't want my kid going to some gang-banger school where he's going to get beat up on by held-back Jose who learned how to hit from his wife-beating illegal immigrant dad. (I realize that the conflation of race and social class is a complicated issue that I don't fully understand. I hope to explore this more in my next post, but I'm giving this example now to illustrate how my peers and I assume that poverty and its attending issues are inherent to certain races.)
Moving to Houston has made me confront some of my prejudices. A few experiences:
At the school playground near my house: It's just Graham, me, five (or six?) little Hispanic boys, and their mother, who is sitting across the bark chip expanse. Some background: Graham loves other kids, especially older kids. He'll walk up to them, pat their arm and say "hi," and then they ignore him or run away and shriek, "That baby's bugging me!" and then they block the stairs to the tower and sneer, "No babies allowed!" and then they get in Graham's face and scare him. Okay, so that was just one little brat another day, and I really wanted to give him the evil eye and tell him it was no wonder his mommy didn't love him and left him with a nanny all day ... but I resisted that evil impulse and the boy's psyche and my soul were spared.
But these five little Hispanic brothers (named Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and I didn't catch the last one) were outrageously sweet to Graham: holding his hand, leading him along to play with them, and then presenting him with that most beloved of playground treasures: a bag of puffy Cheetos, courtesy of their mother. I met her eyes across the playground and waved in thanks. She nodded as she rocked a baby in a stroller. As Graham and I left a little while later, I stopped to thank her again. I asked her if she lived in the neighborhood; she answered that she was there waiting to pick her mom up from work. I noticed the lone, battered minivan parked next to the playground. I told her about how sweet her sons had been; she complimented Graham's cuteness, and then I left. The stereotype: Mexicans are social loafers who have tons of bratty, criminal children. Okay, so she had a grundle of children, but they were the sweetest kids Graham had ever met AND they were generous with their Cheetos--an entire bag of Cheetos. And why do the white kids share their Doritos and Goldfish with Graham when they do? Because their Hispanic nannies tell them to. Also because I'm a horrible mother who only brings pretzels and apple slices for a snack and Graham eventually discovered the wonders of MSG through these playground interactions.
|Peace summit refreshments?|
Another experience--this one where my prejudice was satisfied, but then I felt disturbed by my blatant prejudice: To start off, I was at Walmart, so what could I expect ... but basically I got the laziest checkout girl of all time. She had a ridiculously tight, low-cut shirt on, leopard print fingernail talons, and a pouty little apathetic expression that made me want squirt her in the face with my yet-to-be-purchased ketchup. Long story short, you could tell she delighted in being crappy at her job and making everyone in line wait inordinate amounts of time behind her register, which usually I don't mind because that's when I read celebrity gossip magazines with minimal guilt because, hello, what else would I be doing? But I couldn't even read the latest news about ScarJo because I was in the queue, assuming I would be paying in moments. But I waited and waited and waited as (insert long story that isn't exciting enough to be told). She was black.
As I loaded my bags into my cart after finally being helped, I thought with annoyance, "Why are black people so rude, lazy, and trashy?" And then I realized that I'm a racist. While logically I know that skin color has nothing to do one's strengths or weaknesses, I am quick to generalize about a race or attribute negative characteristics to an entire ethnicity. I know it is the wrong way to think--but it's a habit and a mindset that will take deliberate effort to break free of.
While the checkout girl was rude, lazy, and trashy--it wasn't because she's black. In that moment of annoyance I willfully forgot about all the awesome black Kroger employees who give Graham stickers when we check out, the black classmates I had at BYU who were just as hard-working and neatly-dressed as I ever was, and every other black person who ever challenged my ignorant stereotype.
After that day I started to recognize my racism popping up in previously-unnoticed ways. The rude Pizza Hut manager was so cheap and unaccommodating because he was Arabic. I couldn't trust the mechanic because he was Hispanic. The teenagers at the park in the middle of a school day were up to no good because they were black (while the white kids at the park are just home schooled and taking a break from violin practice, naturally). I realized that I was using race as a primary social cue, using it to determine how I react to and interpret people.
But another thing I realized about myself as I started analyzing my racism is that I'm only selectively racist--which is good in some ways, but mostly bad in that it allowed me to complacently believe for years that I wasn't a racist. I'm selectively racist when: I am not wary of a black man in khakis and a polo shirt who speaks like he's educated, I don't judge my RN Mexican sister-in-law as inferior, I am friends with all the Hispanic nannies I see almost daily at the playground, or when I love my Indian neighbors who bring Graham treats (Milky Way bars today) and had us over for dinner. I used examples like these as proof that I wasn't racist--how could I be when I admired so many non-white people? But then I looked at why I admire them: because they are like me. They are educated, upper-middle class, sophisticated people. I don't feel uncomfortable around these people because even though we aren't the same color, we are the same people.
The Hispanic nannies may be the exception to this, and in a telling way. They aren't like me, but I love them anyway. What those women lack in education and income, they more than make up for in character, kindness, and the friendship they've extended me. But I didn't know that about them the first time I went to the park, and so I avoided them, awkwardly navigating the interactions of my son and the kids they nanny, unsure of how to treat them as the "other." But over time they won me over with their sweetness to Graham, the sisterly bond they seemed to share, and how they laughed at one boy's request to play with "Maria"--a fun nanny who wasn't there that day--because "there are plenty of other 'Maria's' here!" (I think at least three of them are named Maria, seriously). As I saw these women as individuals, and not just identity-free servants of white parents, I grew to love them. Maria wasn't just "Evelyn's nanny," she was a woman with three children of her own, depending on help from her grown daughter to help pay the electricity bill. Blanca wasn't just "the one with the thick accent," she was a woman with a special affinity for babies who never bats an eye when Graham borrows her kid's plastic car.
How I feel about those nannies gives me an insight in how I might be able to change. If I stop requiring hours of time spent together at the playground to establish that someone is human, with challenges and dreams and stories of their own, I would be able to automatically see them as a person. Not a black person or a brown person or a white person, but a child of God--just like me.
In my next post I hope to elaborate on how I'm a racist in recovery, but also a comfortable culturist. While I don't think it's right to judge an entire race, I do think we have a responsibility to examine specific cultures in order to judge their merits and weaknesses. More on that later ...
Are you racist? Any advice on how to stop being a racist?