Those Times I Learned About Racism…
I know the big thing in the racism of today is what we are calling “White Privilege” and I’m not sure if that’s a correct or not. I think it’s more “White Ignorance” then anything else. My opinions have changed so dramatically since I was a kid in high school back in the 80’s with regards to things like racism, religion and homophobia. Back then I was blind to the racism around me. I loved the Cosby show, I couldn’t be racist. I had black friends, I couldn’t be racist. I had no problems with interracial dating. The only racism I ever saw came from the government in my eyes and later TV.
I was against any laws that required a business owner to hire someone based on the color of their skin. How was that not racist? I would hear minorities talk about the lack ethnicity in TV and film and I would think, it’s bullshit. The number 1 show was the Cosby Show. The movies I liked had black people in them. They weren’t always the main character but they were at least there. There was more discrimination against white people than there were minorities. Racism was a thing back in the 60’s. This was the 80’s none of my friends were racist.
in my eyes, my train of thought became confirmed in the early ’90’s when I was trying to get hired on as a cop. Time and time again I couldn’t get hired because I was white. I saw minority men and women get hired that didn’t score as well as I had done on the various tests. In one case, I saw a Latina fail the physical agility test for LAPD and get asked back for the oral interview. I scored higher on the orals than she had and yet, that was the last I heard from the LAPD and she continued on. Later I was a reserve deputy sheriff and I got to play golf with one of the sergeants from my station and a captain that worked at one of the jails. The captain had been the sergeant in charge of or the lieutenant in charge of hiring before he’d become a captain. He had asked why I hadn’t been hired yet. Told him I didn’t know. He said that he would look into it. It turned out that I should have been hired. However, I and dozens of others had been passed over because they had to hire more minorities.
I was young and ignorant and I just couldn’t understand how person of color could say with a straight face that they were being discriminated against. I thought that not based on research but my very limited experiences. And, that is the problem. That is what white people don’t get about racism. As human beings there are two ways we can survive. One is through learning from our experiences and the other is through is education.
The problem is that both ways of learning are full of problems. In my case, my life experiences were showing me one thing and one thing only and I was ignorantly allowing that one thing to influence my entire thoughts on racism in America. I never directly saw a minority not get hired because of the color of their skin. Therefore, racism could not exist to the lengths the media was telling me that it did. This is exactly how a lot of people think on the subject of racism. White or black, we refuse to believe in the facts if they don’t agree with what we have seen. This can lead to racism because when we see enough of the same thing over and over again, we are going to believe it as being true. And, when we stop looking at the facts it’s we become blind to the truth.
I was later smacked in the face with this reality just a few years later. I was working for a security company that hired off duty cops to protect FEMA locations. I worked 7 days a week in South Central L.A. just a couple of building shy of Crenshaw and Jefferson. This was real close to where ground zero of the L.A. riots had gone down a few years before. There was this really amazing soul food place just down the street I would often go to for lunch. I would go in there and feel so uncomfortable because I was always the only white guy in the place. At any given moment, I could look up in any direction and see people staring at me. Some looked angry, some just looked confused at what in the hell I was doing in there. But, I will never forget that feeling. I learned then what it must be like for blacks when they walk into some business. My black friends had told me about this and I ignorantly thought they were just being paranoid. Turns out they weren’t paranoid, I was just in denial and very ignorant about the whole thing.
The most disturbing example of this kind of thing happened to me a few years after the South Central incident. I was now working as a car salesmen. I was doing pretty well at the time. One of the other salesmen was a black guy and I liked him. He was little uptight but a strong salesmen and a good person. One day, he called me on the phone and asked if I could meet him at a store he was shopping in. I didn’t live too far away so I told him I’d be there in a minute. He said that security was following him around. Again, I thought he was being paranoid.
I arrive at the store. Right away I spot the undercover guy looking down one of the isles, trying to be discreet. I walk past him and sure enough he’s looking at T.J, my friend. I was in a shirt and tie and T.J was in a full suit having just got off work. I call out to him as I turn on to the isle and he smiles at me and I smile back. He had been right that he was being watched. But, I was still in denial about it until, I turned and saw the security give me a nod that said in every way, “Oh, okay he must be one of the good ones.” and then he walked away. This was unbelievable to me. We didn’t see the security guy again. I was embarrassed. Here was T.J. a better person than I was. Yet, he was being watched and the moment I show up it appears that I have more or less “vouch” for him and security leaves him alone.
That moment has stuck with me for over 20 years. I had learned that I was looking at this racism issue all wrong. It’s out there and it hides in many ways and all of it is evil. I think racism will eventually fade away. But, we have got to learn to recognize it. This goes for all of us regardless of race. Not everything is a race issue and I think our society overreacts to a lot of things that weren’t meant as being racist but sounded like there were. We have got to educate people on how to recognize the difference. Because, I never considered myself to be racist and yet in many ways I was. It had nothing to do with any kind of white privilege. I was just ignorant to it. I didn’t see it in my daily life and so when it was there, I rationalized it away. It wasn’t until I started to see it from a place outside of my own experiences that I began to understand how very real the issue is.
I was reminded of that moment when I read the ignorant but racist sounding rants of an actress last night after Viola Davis when her Emmy. General Hospital actress Nancy Lee Grahn went on an ignorant rant on Twitter. She wasn’t showing what some are calling “White Privilege”, she showed white ignorance. I don’t think she’s racist, I think she’s ignorant. I have no doubt she has had similar experiences in her life to those that I had growing up and because of it has become blind to it. And, when confronted with real racism I am guessing these things are simply rationalized away by her. I did the same thing and I am embarrassed at how blind I was to the real problems of racism in this country.
Many people, like I used to be, see racism as something that is overt. Slavery, the race riots and so on. We don’t understand what it’s like to be that minority that gets pulled over for no other reason than the color of their skin. Not even the cop sees that their stop was based on the color of that person’s skin in many cases. The thing all of us need to understand is that racism is real, and it mostly hides now. Sometimes it hides under the guise of Southern Pride, sometime it can hide under the guise of immigration reform but most of the time, it hides under our very own ignorance.