Home > Communication, Family, Los Angeles > White people proclaiming racism is over

White people proclaiming racism is over

This post uses the n-word, spelled out for reasons explained in footnote.

“Get your own food, nigger!” 

Year: 2003 or 2004, not 1928. Location: Universal City, Los Angeles, not KKK Central, Somewhere Down South.

A fellow UCLA student and I had been waiting for a restaurant table for ages. When a group of well dressed white folks our age finished eating and left their table, we nabbed it before anyone else could. They’d left behind several plates of barely touched food not yet cleared away, so my friend shrugged and plucked up a piece of abandoned food.

One of the table’s former occupants noticed this and launched himself at us. “Get your own food, nigger!” he shouted, his spit flying at my dark-skinned friend.

I was astonished for a split second, but my astonishment quickly gave way to rage. I shared a piece of my mind as I rose to meet him.

My friend pulled me back toward the table. “He is not worth going to jail for,” she told me.

I watched them walk away, wondering if I hadn’t just dreamed the whole surreal encounter.

And then I forgot it, because it was an isolated incident.

In my white skin.

My mother-in-law recently coordinated an offsite event for her work in Los Angeles.

She was about to step onto an elevator when one of the two people already on board lit into her, concluding his violent, unprovoked comment with the word “nigger.”

She waited for another elevator.

Two men and one woman got out of the car next to me in one of Disneyland’s many parking lots.

They didn’t use the word “nigger,” but the same hate rippled beneath the words they did use.

I was stunned the first time my young son told me dark is bad.

I hoped my words of loving but impassioned disagreement would help him see otherwise, but I wasn’t surprised when my grandmother-in-law later told me about a troubling exchange she’d had with him.

She’d complained of neck pain. He replied by rubbing her neck, saying it was maybe because her skin was dark; he’d try to rub the darkness away for her.

I try to be polite, even in situations where I find it hard to be friendly.

But I recognize politeness is easily distinguished from friendliness upon even the most cursory examination. It’s:

  • A mouth-smile offered with narrowed eyes
  • Sharing the last piece of birthday cake at a work party only with barely concealed scowl, and several seconds’ pause to show–without words to blip on anyone else’s radar–how distasteful is the idea of sharing my this with … that
  • Pretending there’s something better to do so as to ignore someone else an extra couple of seconds, because you really don’t want to engage with them anyway
  • The opposite of the easy banter of future friends; measured, careful words crafted so fastidiously as to remind their hearer: “There is no fondness here, and I’m only granting you this courtesy because people around us will think I’m a jerk if I don’t”

These are examples of microaggressions, or what might have been larger scale aggressions tempered by a veneer of politeness.

Microaggressions occur repeatedly in day to day life as this busy world demands we interact with people we’d much rather avoid, for whatever reason or no clear reason at all.

They’re harder for bystanders to recognize as acts of aggression than shouts of words like “nigger” or “bitch,” but the fact they’re harder to recognize doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It just makes the hardship of those accumulated slights more difficult to explain, even to friends and most especially to those invested in not hearing them.

I’ve witnessed a few acts of blatant race related aggression. 

I’ve also witnessed milder but equal discomfiting ones while out and about with my black husband. At first I wondered if I was imagining certain silences and postures around him, but careful attention while watching from a distance has revealed otherwise. These less flagrant aggressions have ranged from glares and tightened shoulders to store clerks ignoring white patrons while hovering near him with pursed lips. To pedestrians not in his path moving further out of it. To people growing silent when he nears and resuming conversation after he’s passed.

To a million other things that seem small individually, but which together create a terrible burden on shoulders that can only carry so much.

Even witnessing a small handful of these from the luxury of choosing to, I am exhausted and disheartened by them.

How much worse, then, to endure them relentlessly with no other option?

I have read many definitions of “privilege.” Until this evening, I have never been tempted to offer my own.

This evening, I read yet another one of countless posts stating firmly that there is no such thing as blackness anymore, just as there is no such thing as whiteness, and we all need to stop trying to make them exist. The post’s writer would doubtfully describe an orange as purple or a blackboard as pink, but proudly and carefully refuses to overtly recognize different colors of skin.

This alone would trouble me, but it’s the extra step he takes it beyond that which terrifies me: he speaks not only for himself, but for the world, saying that the whole world is colorblind because he is.

That’s his superpower: to understand other people’s experiences without having lived them, and to speak on their behalf without their having elected him to do so. To say with a straight face, “there is no such thing as blackness or whiteness or racism in this modern world” and by his statement reflect a racism that’s more subtly racist than, say, these tweets but racist all the same:

Y’all are deluded, and I have the self designated authority to say so.

Privilege is being enabled to say, without irony, I understand your experiences and can speak for them–and you–at least as well as you can … or to hear that and believe it, without once questioning its source.

If I want to learn what it’s like being a surgeon, I’ll ask a surgeon. Better yet, I’ll ask twenty surgeons for a more accurate picture.

I won’t hang on to the words of one person who’s watched every episode of ER. 

If I want to learn what it’s like being a person of color in the United States, I’ll ask a person of color. Better yet, I’ll ask twenty persons of color.

I won’t hang on to the words of one white person who read an article on racism and refutes its existence today from his experience.

And I hope–no, pray–you will not hang on to my words, but seek truth by listening to those best equipped to share it.

Please note:

Using the phrase “the n-word” instead of the actually used word “nigger” would soften the harsh truth that this terrible word is still flung hatefully today, often outside the earshot of those not intended as its target.

  1. nicciattfield
    December 21, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    Colour blindness really does deny the impacts of race. I remember David Theo Goldberg describing the difference between ‘anti-racism’ and ‘anti-racialisation’ (or use of terms such as ‘whiteness’). He says that if we deny the psychological, social and material impacts of racism, then we allow the ghosts of the past to go unrecognized (and therefore allow them to shape the future).

    I think recognition of the struggles people face in their day to day lives is the important part of this work, rather than the intellectual debates people like to have. And as you say, those of us with privilege can only know what those are by listening, not by sharing theory. But as a person starts to listen and awarness increases, it’s quite clear that massive discrimination exists. And it’s subtle a lot of the time. I remember one of my research respondents on xenophobia in SA explaining “It’s that look that comes without words, that look that says ‘oh, you’re one of them!’” It’s the continual discomfort that wears people down, sometimes silently, and sometimes it creates a feeling of threat or risk of harm. It means people don’t want to get into a lift or speak back for fear of going to jail. More than anything, its dehumanizing, a refusal to see a person rather than level of skin pigmentation.

    I’m so sad to hear your son (your kind, bright and lovely son) having this conversation about dark skin, and the messages he’s heard about that. It’s heartbreaking,and it the reason we need to carry on working, so that we can keep going.

    Although anti-racism is important, I think the need for racial awareness and sensitivity is the true work. The more people become aware of discrimination, and the more people become aware that people of colour are perfectly capable of sharing and speaking out stories of how the world is, the more people with privilege can learn and grow.

    One step at a time, I guess. And it feels so unjust and unfair to type that.

    • December 24, 2014 at 11:44 am

      He says that if we deny the psychological, social and material impacts of racism, then we allow the ghosts of the past to go unrecognized (and therefore allow them to shape the future).
      YES. Did you watch the TED talk on the difference between Germany (as re: the Holocaust) and U.S. (as re: slavery and segregation)? In Germany, recognizing the Holocaust’s truth and taking responsibility for nothing like that ever happening again–in addition to making it a crime to deny the Holocaust–has created a dramatically different landscape than that in the United States today, where the fact 50ish years have passed since segregation was officially dismantled as treated as evidence itself that progress has been made. Like I told my dad in our last conversation, accountability is the basis for change; without accountability, I feel we can pretty much expect to repeat the same terrible lessons.

      I think recognition of the struggles people face in their day to day lives is the important part of this work, rather than the intellectual debates people like to have.
      Also a resounding YES. I actually went through some of my old papers, looking for a particular one to show Anthony, and found a few of the ones I wrote in law school. One in particular made me cringe. I visited two elementary schools ten minutes apart in the Bay Area of California. One was a blue ribbon (indicating academic excellence) school with almost wholly white/Asian student body, exceptional teachers, an impassioned principal and well tended … everything. The other was a decrepit school with tattered textbooks and substitute teachers, as well as a principal who alternately said she had SO MUCH POWER and that her hands were tied. My whole paper treated it as an abstract, academic discrepancy. I understood there was no educational (or racial) equity, but it was an abstraction to me. I wanted to bang my head against a desk having seen for myself exactly the inequity we’d discussed in class and seen it as part of academic discussion instead of real pain leading young people to live lives of continued inequity.

      I’m saddened that was how I viewed things then, but glad to be seeing things clearer now. I have a long way to go, to be sure, but all the way I’ll remind myself the importance–for now and the future–in keeping on trying to be/hear better.

      (FYI, Anthony read and cheered about your comment shortly after it was posted.)

      • nicciattfield
        December 24, 2014 at 12:51 pm

        Deborah, I always admire your honesty so much. I too cringe when I see my old work and my old views and perspectives. There are times I want to hang my head and yowl, and times where I am so thankful nobody gets to read what I used to write…It’s a journey, or a process, I think, this unfolding awareness.

        Your courage and bravery in addressing all of the inequality that still exists is so inspiring. It’s so good to see, and it stops me feeling alone with all of my own learning and awakening too. i think we need a form of cultural therepeutics.

        I haven’t seen the TED talk…I would very much like to. In my country though there was the TRC, and there’s still a need to work through racism and abuse. I think if we keep having conversations and more and more people join in, then there’s hopefully a deeper awareness and empathy which develops? I really hope so.

        All the best for the holidays, Deborah, and I’m so glad Anthony liked the comment. Your sons deserve a more just world. I hope they hear your message.

  2. terrikurczewski
    December 22, 2014 at 5:50 am

    I think its really important for those of us who are allies of all marginalized people and the ones who benefit the most from white privilege to continue to be vocal about these issues which absolutely do still exist. Way to go Deborah!

  3. cardamone5
    December 22, 2014 at 6:19 am

    I can’t type the n word. It literally makes me physically ill, it is so distilled with hate and ugliness (for me, a white person, who has the luxury of never being targeted by this word.)

    I agree racism thrives, and the illusion of a more open and accepting society is simply racism veiled by the thin veneers you reference. I had hoped that President Obama’s election signified some significant change in our society’s close mindedness, but, if anything, I think it has shone the light on racism, and made it harder to deny its vibrancy. Which, is good in a sense. It makes it impossible for us to ignore. But, nothing is changing, so maybe it’s not so good. Or maybe this is the uncomfortable middle of change that takes generations to occur. I think the most glaring evidence of racism is the perpetuation of murder and oppression of African Americans, particularly men, but, this is all said from a very limited perspective, as a white person, never having faced such circumstances.

    As you said, to understand the experience, and the truth, I need to ask many, many African Americans.

    I appreciate your perspective. It is so important to keep talking about this.


  4. December 22, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Wow, I am shocked that people still use that word and that you’ve had these experiences in LA, a place that we think might be a little further ahead. I am so grateful for your honest report and commentary on racism. 37 years ago I was engaged to a black man from Trinidad and as long as we were in the islands or on the ocean I did not know racism.

    We didn’t end up getting married simply because I was too young and restless to settle down and too self-centered to experience love. About 10 years later I was lamenting to a female black friend of mine that I wished I had married my fiance from Trinidad. She responded with, “Honey, you’re not strong enough to be married to a black man.” I was a little shocked at the time but I wondered why she made that evaluation of me. I’m not one to jump to conclusions and I keep things in the back of my head for a long time. Now I see from your commentary that I was naive, idealistic and unaware and that’s why my friend perceived me as being weak.

  5. December 22, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I wonder about the motivations for posting “racism is over” types of things. Is it to avoid having to think about the harsh reality that people are treated differently based on appearance? I guess for someone who’s never experienced bigotry, it’s easy to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

    I’m so sorry that your son thought dark was bad. That breaks my heart. But I trust that as parents, you will be able to teach him otherwise.

  6. December 22, 2014 at 11:37 am

    I am so sorry you keep banging your head against such ugliness. For what it’s worth, you know, it’s not just racism. I am an obese woman in my 50s, with a “weird” accent and zero to no interest in wearing makeup, getting my hair “done”, or wearing fashionable clothes. And whether I’m waiting for a place in a restaurant or applying for a job or just moseying along and minding my own business, I hear equivalent comments, and encounter equivalent attitudes, pretty much on an ongoing basis – and my habit of holding unpopular opinions (and not always shutting my mouth over them) exposes me even more. I’m not trying to diminish the reality or the pain of racism. Rather I’m offering what I consider relevant context … Some people just are made uncomfortable by anyone who doesn’t fit perfectly into their mass-produced people-box. In fact, I think most people would prefer a world with minimal “diversity” – except for the pretty kind, of course. And of those people, some are simply ugly – real live trolls, walking around, thinking the world is their bridge.

  7. December 22, 2014 at 11:39 am

    With a black President, I wanted to believe we were on our way to alleviating racism, but sadly, it isn’t so. Unfortunately for some, this hatred is taught and generations old. How sad, shallow and simplistic a way of thinking.

  8. December 22, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Wow – as much as I would love to live in a colorblind world, the reality is we’re just not there yet.

    On a (hopefully) lighter note, I believe I have mentioned before that my older daughter is mixed race and my younger daughter is white. A few years ago, in a fit of sibling rivalry, my younger daughter told my older daughter, “White people are better than brown people.”


    Well, we couldn’t let that stand, so we IMMEDIATELY told her that is something she is NEVER to say again. We also filled them in on some of the history of racism, including slavery. I don’t believe my daughter had any racist intentions; I truly think that the comment was just from completely innocent anger about something completely unrelated. But I was still horrified!

    To this day there have been no more racist statements in our house, whether on purpose or not.

    • Samantha Clarke
      December 23, 2014 at 10:54 am

      My sisters and I would say stuff like this to each other when we were little–brunettes are better than blondes, etc–and we cut it out immediately when we learned what we were really saying too. I think it’s normal to compete as children, even on something as silly as what color your hair or skin is. It’s just them reaching for some superiority in a spat.

      Good for you for educating them about what their words mean!

  9. December 23, 2014 at 10:51 am

    A couple things:

    1. Brava! Well said. I can feel your anger and frustration and they are well placed. My husband and I are an interracial couple (he’s white, I’m middle eastern) and even we get all kinds of weird treatment and microaggressions–I can only IMAGINE if one of us were black and we had a black child together. A lot of people in this country really, really suck.

    2. I appreciate your boldness on both the actual use of the word “nigger” in telling your story–you’re right, saying “the n-word” softens the harsh truth, and a story like that has shock to it for a reason–and in calling out the “colorblind” guy. I don’t WANT to live in a world that is legitimately colorblind, at least not until we’re all so globalized and intermixed that we all look like a blend of everybody anyway (I won’t be around to see that). I LIKE my Armenian heritage and my dark skin and eyes. I like it when people ask me questions about my family’s culture because they can see I look different from them. What I want is not for someone to look at me and “not see color,” I want them to look at me and appreciate the value of my color and what it means and where it comes from, the same way I do with people of all colors. And I want to stop being treated as lesser, or as immoral, or as violent, just because I look like “a terrorist” (yes, I’ve been called that). I’ve heard a lot of people of color say the same thing–I am not alone.

  10. December 23, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    It is so sad to read these truths. I have very pale skin.. Some years ago, on a hot day when I wore shorts to work, a female coworker made some comments about how I needed to get some self tanner to make my legs look like something other than the color they are…I honestly don’t remember her exact words now, just the offensiveness of the idea of telling someone that their natural skin color is unacceptable to look at. As you say, it is easier to move on when it is a single (in my case, maybe even innocently intended) incident rather than a lifelong experience. To magnify this feeling to an extent of the kind you are writing about …it is difficult to imagine. The way the concepts spread like a virus in the minds of children …frightening.

  11. December 27, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Terrifying, isn’t it?

    I have written about privilege, specifically the privilege of being born in my skin. Not doing anything special, just being born in my skin. I have seen the harm done to those I love of not having the same privilege, even when they are standing right next to me. It has infuriated me and caused me at times to lash out. It does not though, give me insight into what it feels like to walk in their shoes or wake in their skin.

    We are not colorblind. It is offering an insult, truly to say to another, ‘I do not see the color of your skin’. The color of their skin is a part of them, it is who they are and what they walk through the world in. The color of their skin is how the world defines them, all to often how the world treats them is based first on the color of their skin. For us, born with the privilege of saying, ‘I refuse to allow you your color as a convenience to me’; this is insulting and simply another manifestation of our privilege.

    As always you have offered up a thoughtful and brilliant piece to contemplate. Thank you.

  12. December 28, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Reblogged this on syetablog.

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