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.”
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:
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!
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.
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 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?
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.