Racism is an ugly word. No one grows up striving to be a racist, whatever that means anyway. Most dominant culture white people do things and say things, however, that reinforce racially-based oppressions, often inadvertently and unknowingly. Occasionally I catch myself upholding the patterns of interactions that support racially-based misunderstandings and discrimination. Does that make me a racist?
One morning I stepped out of my home office into our trendy business district to pick up a few groceries. I noticed a car I did not recognize parked in a loading zone. With excellent bus service into downtown our neighborhood is an unofficially designated park-and-ride for many commuters. The driver might not have noticed the sign if he was in a hustle for the bus just steps around the corner. Some of the neighbors are quite possessive of the very limited street parking and watch with baited breath to report any and every potential violator. If he was a new commuter surely he would get a citation. When the driver opened the door I called to him.
“Did you see the sign? Did you know you are parked in a loading zone? If you are going to be more than a few minutes you might want to pull up the block.”
“I can park here,” he responded. “I’m just picking up some equipment.” He gestured to the music rental shop, which I did not realize opened before noon.
“Oh, that’s fine.” He looked a little defensive.
“The sign says I can park here.”
“That’s fine. No really, that’s fine,” I repeated myself. “I just didn’t want you to get a ticket.”
“I’m just going to be a few minutes. I can park here legally.”
“No really. . . ,” I started again. I was perplexed by his defensiveness. For crying out loud, I was trying to do him a favor.
We went back and forth like that until we both slowed down when he asked,
“What? You don’t want me to get a ticket?”
“No. Some of the neighbors are very protective of the street parking. A lot of people park-and-ride, and you might get a ticket if you stay more than a few minutes. There is plenty of parking up the block. But if you are just getting equipment . . . ”
As the words trailed out of my mouth and I recognized the change in his expression and we both started to let out an anxious laugh of relief when we saw the absurdity of our missed connection. As a black man he was probably accustomed to strangers telling him to move his car. He had probably had that argument thousands of times.
Did I really just tell a stranger to move his car? It was more of a suggestion, but still I was appalled with myself. Who am I to tell anyone to move his car for any reason? Even if I thought it was in his best interest, that was completely infantilizing. And worse yet, I had made this assumption that he was just like everyone else.
Inasmuch as the man had made some assumptions based on his experiences just as I did mine, the burden to see and hear openly belongs to both of us equally, not to him alone. The difference between our positions, however, is that the responsibility of ensuring effective communication falls disproportionately on him in almost every social situation.
I tried to imagine the different variants he has on our encounter every day: shopping, lunches out, bus rides, conversations with school teachers and administrators, banking. How do those conversations normally go? What otherwise routine expectation does he have to argue for and explain himself to justify his actions or get what he needs? After an argument and effort, however, no experience is really the same. A parking space is not just a parking space at that point.
Race shapes my life as much as it shapes the life of the man who parked in the loading zone. While he is accustomed to old doors, stuck in distorted and settled frames, with resistant knobs and rusted hinges at every node and encounter, I am accustomed to automatic sliding doors that whisk out of the way as I approach. As a woman, the sensor eye that controls the slider is usually set at least two feet above my head. It takes some effort and skill to navigate most passages, but I don’t have to carry a whole case full of master keys and tools to jimmy and power my entrée into every social experience. My whiteness gives me access and an ability to negotiate most situations to my favor without a great deal of effort. That is unearned white privilege.
When I do not see race as an underlying part of an exchange, I cannot not see a lifetime worth of arguments about something so inane as parking. Honestly, I really did not care where the man left his car or whether he owed the city $40 at the end of the day. I just wanted him to know that the risk of a citation might be higher in my neighborhood than in others. Parking enforcement outside of downtown is completely dependent on the extent that neighborhood residents are keen to report violations, and I’ve called in plenty of infractions myself—albeit only when a car is blocking the driveway.
I have replayed this exchange in my mind dozens of times trying to disassemble the structural and cultural patterns and reassemble the encounter in a way that circumvents and dissolves entrenched racial inequalities. For starters, I need to own responsibility for our expectations and the communication patterns that have been developing and repeating themselves for many hundreds of years. Neither of us may have been around as racial and cultural inequalities and the current narratives to support them emerged, but I have benefited from them quite handily, if completely ignorantly.
To take ownership of unjust conditions I need to see my privilege as I enter into any social exchange, regardless of how mundane, and regardless of how any conversational partner presents racially, or in any other way. We all traverse this world as whole and complex individuals colored by a lifetime of experiences, injustices, frustrations, joys, and traumas. I don’t know what any person brings to a situation.
Even as a researcher I find it maddeningly difficult to step out of myself in the midst of daily, fleeting routine. Humans are hard-wired to make assumptions, partly as a survival mechanism, and partly to protect our sanity, which I suppose is itself a survival mechanism. Imagine if we had to pause and contemplate the true meaning of every stop sign or red light in every situation. Of course, these basic artifacts of the modern world may be a poor example, because in my neighborhood they do seem to be up for interpretations that vary wildly. At times it can be somewhat breathtaking to cross an intersection.
In this situation, even with no racial awareness at all, the exchange came very near to replicating and supporting racist communication patterns and outcomes that perpetuate racial disparities. Had the man in the loading not made the connection first I may never have understood the exchange at all. I may have walked away thinking naively, “Weird. Why does everyone seem to take parking so personally around here?” Even in contemplating these reflections I am making some big assumptions about his experiences and interpretations of the situation. We did not discuss it afterwards. We just got to, “Ah!” and then went about our business.
Race matters at every interaction. To be color blind is to be racially ignorant and racially biased. Treating everyone as if they are exactly the same means treating everyone unfairly, as if no differences exist. That attitude turns a blind eye to the institutionalized structures and patterns of interactions that uphold the walls that divide people, and pretentiously disregards the history that built them.
Unfortunately, that is the water I grew up swimming in, the air I grew up breathing. How can I learn to breath differently and thrive on different air and water that I do not understand fully? I cannot live as a person of color to understand the experience. Even when I am in a situation where I am the racial minority I hold the power as a well-educated white woman with a U.S. passport. I can assert my power to chip away at the social structures, but only if I proactively recognize power discrepancies.
I am feeling unresolved on this issue. I started with the question, am I a racist? Calling anyone a racist, or any other pejorative term not a productive part of problem solving. I prefer to think in terms of behavior change, and changing hearts and minds. Sometimes I need help recognizing when I do or say things that replicate social patterns that sustain divisions. This thought, however, is tinged with absurdity. Why should anyone I harm, however inadvertently, have patience for me? I have no patience for racist words or deeds. People who live with their effects every day are entitled to be impatient.