Recovering racist

CW: Racism

It was March 2002. This morning’s topic of conversation: the 2002 Oscars. It had aired the night before, and I was excitedly talking about my favorite moments. I (a white-appearing part Native American) was sitting on my white male manager’s counter-desk with my heels hitting his overstuffed filing cabinets.

“I was so glad Halle won!” I said. I pumped out my chest as the head chef, a Texas-bred black man, walked by and nodded at us.

“Yeah, same,” my manager said. His smile half-seen as he focused on his computer screen. “And Denzel.”

I shook my head, “Nah, dude. He didn’t deserve it. It was only cuz-of that Affirmative Action bullshit that he won. Denzel should’ve won for The Hurricane in ‘99.”

My manager swung his chair around, stood up, passed me, and closed his door. On the other side, the chef walked past again, eyes narrowed.

“You can’t talk that way!” my manager said. He crossed his arms.

“Uh, what?” I asked, oblivious. I didn’t want to admit that I had mimed the words my father had said earlier.

“It makes you sound racist,” he said with a stern expression.

“I’m not a racist!” The knee-jerk reactionary words rang in the closed-in space. “My best friends in high school and college were black.”

He shook his head and walked back to his chair. He sat, posture rigid, practically imposing.

“That’s exactly what racists say.”

“But it’s true.” 

I jumped off his desk and landed with a soft thud on the ground. “I’m done here,” I swung open the door and crossed its threshold.

He called back to me, but I ignored him. I stalked into the ladies’ bathroom, cheeks burning. I’m not. I’ve never – Who does he think he is?

I didn’t know it then, but he had sown the seeds of doubt in me. 

I think back now to my high school and college friends, the ones I so boldly misused as mascots to my non-racism. I think about the trombone player with broad shoulders and a broader smile. I think about how instead of playing football as he would have been “suggested” to do, he spent his days practicing his instrument and playing Mario Kart with his white friends in his upper-middle-class home. I think about the half-black girl adopted by two white parents and how she never sounded “black”. 

Did they code-switch to match their environment? Probably. Did I know what code-switching was back in 2002? Absolutely not. 

I think about my college friend. His blackness was the butt of every joke he told since he was the minority in our circle of friends. “Horror movies have it all wrong. As a black man, lemme tell ya. There ain’t no way in hell he’s walkin’ into that house. He’s high-tailin’ it outta there.”

He’d laugh, we’d laugh, and I just wonder now if that wore away at his racial pride at all.

I didn’t do or generally say the things overt racists do, but that does not mean that it wasn’t there. From an early age, I learned from my parents to keep my feelings hidden. I’d hear Dad say things in the privacy of our home. It would be a natural occurrence for him to say the n-word or other slurs that should never be uttered. Raised in a strict and sheltered household, it was normal. This was how everyone acted. I was too close to it to see the truth.

It took one closed door and a frank word for me to realize I might be racist.

It would take longer yet to overcome the deep programming of my youth, and it would take distance from my family for me to see the source of my hate. It would take reading other people’s stories to understand how generational trauma occurs and affects people. And it would take documentarians to show me the truth about racial profiling and incarceration.

I can’t say I’m the best person to talk to about racism. I’m probably not the ally that people of color need right now. But I do know, sometimes all it takes is one nudge to change a person’s heart. 

So you can be damned sure I will speak up if I hear a racist comment. 

9 thoughts on “Recovering racist

  1. It’s good to see you exploring this issue critically, Mel. Racism is rife, and internalised racism (amongst people of colour towards our own) is more common than people think. Internalised racism is also highly predictable — when you’re told forever that you and those who are like you are less worthy, less deserving, less human, and when that message is repeated in subtle and overt ways all the time, it doesn’t seem so surprising that you might come to believe that in some way. I think it’s equally important to combat racism, and simultaneously raise up voices of marginalised folks.

    One important note on this sentence though: “I think about the half-black girl adopted by two white parents and how she never sounded “black”” — “half-black” is a poor descriptor. It immediately raises the question, ‘which half? The upper half? The lower half? Left or right?’. A more generous and more commonly used descriptor might be biracial.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also, it’s conventional to capitalise Black when referring to Black folks in the US.

      I’ve been thinking a bit more about “sounding Black”. I do like that you referred to code switching here. Such an important point — code switching is commonly used as a masking strategy, to ‘fit in’. One of the implicit beliefs in society is that “sounding Black” is inherently less desirable because of all the negative values ascribed to it. I also like that you’ve hinted at the fact that these kids might have (would most likely have) shown white/non-Black friends only what those friends wanted to see, that they didn’t reveal the entirety of themselves or the complex intertwined identities they inhabit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m actually ashamed that I didn’t really even know this happened until I started reading about it in creative nonfiction. Then my understanding just grew reading The Hate U Give and watching Sorry to Bother You and BlackKklansman. But once I realised it, it made me re-interpret the relationships I had when I was younger.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. We’re all still works in progress! I’m delighted that you’re doing this hard work within yourself, and looking around you at the same time. Human beings rarely see things that they’re surrounded by, so don’t beat yourself up about that. I really love Maya Angelou’s words on this: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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  2. There is nothing tougher than taking on our own prejudices, and not only about race. No one likes to think of themselves as racist or bigoted, and the only way to change those things is self-awareness, openness to others’ feedback, and a willingness to see things differently.
    Right now I find myself struggling to say, or write the ‘right’ things, to show compassion without pandering, to listen without offering my opinion, and to speak up when called to.
    Thanks for sharing this.

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  3. Loved this. This is exactly why I refuse to believe “racists” can’t change. Of course they can, if their hearts and minds are open. I am white and my dad used to call black people “chocolates,” so I get it. He changed his tune over the years. You’re absolutely right that we need to listen and read people’s stories. That’s how we learn and grow. Thanks for posting this.

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