Home > Humor, Parenting > Race & the willingness to see, or: “Don’t be Bob”

Race & the willingness to see, or: “Don’t be Bob”

“Racism is dead, folks. Move on!”

“Why are we still talking about race? I’ve never once seen an act of racism. It’s only people in backwater Arkansas who still think like that.”

“I don’t see color, and neither does anyone else these days. I don’t see why some people still want to live in the 1950s when racism was actually a problem.”

"My cat doesn't see it, either. She's above that."

“My cat doesn’t see it, either. She’s above that.”

I’ve seen dozens of variations on these words in the past few days. I’d look for direct quotes, but honestly, I’d get so grumpy scanning through comments for the verbatim gems I’d end up devouring a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s instead of writing this blog. (And I don’t even eat dairy! Or added sugar!)

Aren’t I pasty white person? Yes, indeedy! But as the pasty white mama of a lovely mocha-colored cub, I’ve been inspired to research race and racism in a way I wasn’t before, back when I thought it didn’t exist save in backwater Arkansas.

Oh, yeah, I did.

Since I was told my child would experience racism someday, I’ve been a motivated race researcher. The things I learn now and teach my son about are the things he’ll be better prepared to face as he grows. A decade ago, I could afford to think whatever I wanted about race and racism. It was (mostly, Arkansas excepted) a historical artifact, not a real thing that had real impacts on real modern life.

Then I started seeing, really seeing, articles I’d glossed over before: ones addressing racial profiling prevalent today, ones discussing Hunger Games fans’ horror upon discovering a beloved character was (gasp!) black, ones discussing prevalence of racial prejudice even in 2012, and pretty much everything ever posted on PublicShaming. Examples are endless, once we start looking, but then–how many people go out looking for them, assuming racism doesn’t actually exist anymore? I surely didn’t, and see through comments such as those starting this post that many folks still stand in my old shoes.

I used to say I was color blind, before I realized being color blind was a privilege I was afforded by my skin color. It’s much harder, after all, to be color blind when you are singled out for the color of skin on a daily basis, such as for driving while black, shopping while black or simply being black in the “wrong” neighborhood. As one friend wrote about her experiences in law enforcement:

My husband and I have both been in law enforcement for many years, and we both agree (using our experience of dealing with types of people-and by types of people I mean folks who think they’re more important than they are and try to be the police) that in our opinions Zimmerman is guilty. He was the type of person who made numerous calls to 911 all the time about bullshit. Bull-shit. He called because he saw a black guy in his neighborhood, period. If you think people don’t call 911 for that reason, then you are very naive, indeed. I can’t count the calls I’ve fielded on 911: “A black guy is walking on my street.” Me: “Ok but what’s he doing?” Caller: “He’s BLACK.” Not an emergency. Not a suspicious person.

All this is lengthy preface to a short post not about race, or racism, but willingness to see. Willingness to understand that what any one of us sees is only one tiny fragment of the entire human experience. Willingness to extend our view from one individual pair of eyes but to the combined perspective of billions.

I could wax verbose, or I could tell you a little bit about my (make-believe) friend Bob. He’s a good-natured guy who knows a little about a lot of things, and likes to tell you all about it, usually at the least opportune time. Still, it’s hard to fault him, because he makes a mean guacamole and is suprisingly gentle-hearted while coaching pee-wee soccer. (He actually gets that kids are kids, and it’s not all about winning!) Bob’s a pretty awesome dude, if once in a while his well intentioned comments make you grimace.

Imagine Bob is conversing with his work buddy, Zack. Zack is talking about how hard life is as a single parent of three. Bob, bless his heart, knows a little about single parenting:

bob bb1

zack bb1

Now let’s imagine Zack, still happily married to his wife, is talking about an exhausting shopping trip yesterday. His autistic child threw a tantrum, and to make matters worse, other shoppers told him he needed to do a better job keeping his kid in check. “I wish they’d offer help instead of judging me, you know?” Zack muses.

Expert Bob to the rescue!

bob bb2

zack bb2

Now let’s imagine Zack can’t actually get married, because he’s gay and lives in one of most states in the U.S.A. that don’t allow him to marry. Bob’s known Zack is gay for a long while, but Zack’s parents didn’t know until last weekend. Zack can barely restrain tears as he explains that his parents disowned him for being gay.

With a big ol’ pat on the back, Bob is there to impart wisdom.
bob bb3a

bob bb3b
zack bb3

Now let’s say Zack mentions he read a thought-provoking blog on racism in 2013 U.S.A. Bob, as always, knows a bit about this subject.

bob bb4a

zack bb4a
zack bb4b
bob bb4b
zack bb4c

Bob isn’t real. Zack isn’t real. Two of my most favoritest guys in the world agreed to be their faces for the purposes of this post.

Still, I know lots of Bobs. I’ve even been Bob in the past–heck, probably as recently as this morning! My best example of being inadvertently unseeing Bob is probably reflected in this 2000ish exchange with a dear friend:

Me: Do you ever walk by a black person and feel really awkward because you don’t know what to say and you don’t dislike them or anything but you don’t see hardly any black people and so you just kinda stare at the sidewalk and mumble “hello” because you don’t know what to say even though you want to say something?

Sarah: No.

Lengthy preamble aside, my hope in posting this instead of indulging Ben & Jerry cravings is small. If one person walks away from this blog a little more willing to consider and challenge their own assumptions, my hopes–for this post–will have been more than fulfilled. I’m not asking anyone to think, believe, or feel exactly as I do, but instead to consider the possibility the world reasonably is experienced differently by and looks a little different to each of its seven billion human residents.

I believe the world will be bettered by more people trying to see the world through other peoples’ eyes, and to hear their fellow humans’ experiences as they are spoken, not as any other person wishes to hear them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Bob’s a nice guy and all, and we should have compassion for him, but please. Don’t make a habit of being Bob.

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  1. July 19, 2013 at 6:55 am

    All of us, at one time or another can be or have been Bob. It doesn’t matter how aware we are, it is simply a matter of how stupid we can. Isn’t it funny? Not funny as in HaHA but funny as in, the human condition leaves us so much room to error on the side of regular self-emolation.

    “I have a black friend”

    Yes, so do I. But when I talk about her I say, “My best friend of 35 years recently told me….”

    We all have some strange reactions to the world around us. Some are because of what we are bombarded with, we don’t recognize our reactions for what they are. The only thing we can do is become self-aware, stop the inner dialog that causes us to unintentionally ‘profile and judge’ those not like us. Until each of start doing this and start stepping in when we see others behaving badly, even without overt intent we will never cure what ails us.

    Beautifully written Deb, as always.

  2. July 19, 2013 at 6:56 am

    As always, your words, and your heart (and your humor) are spot onl. People like to think that racism doesn’t exist now, or that others are not judged based on the color of their skin, gender or social status because believing otherwise doesn’t work well inside a Pollyanna bubble. I find it interesting though, that it’s never the group in question saying, “Nope, no discrimination here!” It’s generally the other side, going, “I don’t know why they’re bitching. Everything looks fine from over here.” Blinders make for a pretty narrow view of the world.

  3. July 19, 2013 at 7:34 am

    I never comment, but read you voraciously and can’t thank you enough for your talent, your wisdom, and your heart. This piece on racism and about the good-intentioned but clueless “Bob” (and “Robertas”) of the world is the perfect example of why I so often “share” your blog posts on Facebook. Keep writing! You *are* changing hearts and minds!

  4. Donnell Jeansonne
    July 19, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Bravo!

    I’ve experienced some of these scenarios either myself or through my friends in one way or another. For example, before we left the hospital, RB’s oncology team acted toward me like I was a lunatic for asking if I would get extra assistance at the Hope Lodge with my child who is on a ventilator and bed/wheelchair ridden. We eventually decided not to stay there, but then he was kept in-patient for his treatments, anyway. I’ve also seen my black friends experience racism and have been treated differently when I’m with them. I’ve experienced a good friend of mine be subject to not only racism, but what is commonly called colorism, in which black people judge one another on their choice of friends or lifestyle. She was actually told recently by a black man who was trying to hit on her that she “was pretty for a dark girl.” What? She’s beautiful. I love her. We do talk about race. And she and a white friend of mine have a running joke in reference to a racial slur they both heard while together and didn’t know the meaning of but Googled it, and learned its meaning. (I actually had to ask them to stop using it at work as I was their supervisor then, and I really didn’t want to be pulled into internal affairs because someone might hear it and not know it was their inside joke.) But sadly it’s really not a joke, even though I admire her ability to rise above and be strong enough to know that it’s not worth stressing over ignorant people. But she is bothered by it, and rightfully so. I’ve been told (by a very nice black lady who was being sort of a Bob) that even though my mother, me and my husband “look Italian” we really are gumbo because everyone in New Orleans is gumbo. It’s true. We are gumbo. I am not just Italian, but I look Italian (and sound Italian-like straight from Jersey) so people assume it. I don’t mind it. (Unless I try to visit an Irish pub…) But the point is that people just assume things by looking at you or by what they think they know about your situation (as in the case with RB’s doctors.), and they shouldn’t.

    That was long, sorry.

    Also, your friend asked me if you could fix her misuse of “their” in her comment. She would appreciate it. Haha *awkward laugh*

  5. July 19, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Well said! Actually, in this case experience is not always the best teacher because we experience life through our own limited viewpoint. Some people just never get that.

  6. July 19, 2013 at 11:09 am

    I think I know Bob’s wife. Or maybe she’s his sister. She loves to give me advice about my son’s learning disabilities. And correct my grammar.

  7. July 19, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Sadly Bob lives in my family. Rather a lot of my family. All of whom are happy to say that they have walked miles in other people’s shoes. All of whom are strangers to the truth.
    Great post, but its truth saddens me.

  8. July 20, 2013 at 7:12 am

    I think we all kid ourselves, because we all have prejudices. But it matters if we think about them and try to overcome them. To accept people first and foremost as people.

    My family is mixed races. My adopted son is Hispanic, my niece married a black man from Honduras, and my nephew married a woman from India. Our family is richer for who they are and for all the things they bring to our families.

  9. July 21, 2013 at 7:00 am

    Thanks for writing this post, Deb. A few thoughts from my little corner of the South: Trayvon Martin could be any number of the teenage boys I taught . How can I not take his death personally? If George Zimmerman had stayed in his car, TM would still be alive. Better yet, he should have stayed home with his wife instead of playing cops and robbers I am proud of President Obama for personalizing this case. I find it chilling to think the President of the United States was treated like a criminal when he was a young man for no other reason than the color of his skin. And last, I’m glad we’re having this conversation but I’m sad that it took this tragic death to start the conversation.

  1. November 10, 2013 at 9:02 am
  2. January 8, 2014 at 4:11 am
  3. October 1, 2014 at 8:40 pm
  4. October 28, 2014 at 8:35 am
  5. November 27, 2014 at 5:09 pm
  6. May 25, 2015 at 5:02 pm
  7. June 24, 2015 at 9:14 pm
  8. July 28, 2015 at 7:45 pm
  9. March 19, 2016 at 4:31 am
  10. September 20, 2016 at 8:06 pm
  11. March 5, 2017 at 7:52 pm
  12. June 16, 2017 at 1:01 pm

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