I saw a story about twin girls who were born – one was black and one was white. Both parents were half black and half white – and the genes had shuffled around and produced an all-white and an all-black child. I saw another story about a woman who gave birth to a white child, and she and her partner were both black. Both mother and child were genetically tested and it was proven that she had not cheated – the child was hers.
We can go into the concept of even using the term “black” versus “African-American” if we want, but the parents in this case weren’t in America, so they aren’t “African-American” themselves. Plus, my “African-American” friends frequently use the term “black” to describe themselves. Morgan Freeman says we shouldn’t use any term – just talk about people as people. But that isn’t going to work either.
Because we do have different experiences. We see the world differently. The world sees us differently. Every person is viewed, is judged, based on their appearance. Some of it we have a choice about – do we present ourselves as rich, as concerned about our image, as lazy, as bohemian, as eccentric…you get the point. Actors know about this. If you want people to see you a certain way, you can change how you are seen.
But you can’t change your race. That is a lot of surface area to cover. You can’t just put on a different hat and have people think you are a different person. It isn’t that simple.
I remember a study where people were applied with stage makeup. They had fake scars put on themselves. They noticed that people treated them differently. A little later in the study, the participants went through the makeup process, but didn’t get the scars put on. They were not allowed to look in a mirror either time – with, or without the fake scar. Even without the scar, they reported that people treated them differently. They still thought they had the scar, and they thought that other people were reacting to them as if they had the scar.
Really what they were reacting to was the participant’s fear and hesitation about being judged for having a scar – which wasn’t there.
So there is something internal about this.
I remember when I lived in Chattanooga I was working at a record store. A black lady was standing in front of me getting help. A white lady came in and, not noticing that I was helping another person, asked for help. She was standing about 10 feet away. I indicated that I was helping another person, and I’ll help her in a little bit. She noticed the other lady, apologized, and continued to look around the store, patiently waiting for me. Two days later, the reverse situation happened. I was helping a white lady, and a black lady came in and asked for help. I said the exact same thing to her – that I was helping this lady in front of me and I’ll help her as soon as possible. She stormed out.
For me to treat people differently because of their race is racist.
For them to assume that I’m treating them differently because of my race is racist.
I’ve heard and read plenty of discussion saying that black people can’t be racist. There is something about their definition of racist that isn’t in the dictionary. They use issues of power – of higher versus lower. They say that the racist is someone who has power in the situation. Their argument is that since a black person does not have power, she can’t be racist.
The definition of racist has nothing to do with this. It is to treat someone differently because of their race. Power has nothing at all to do with it. We’ve added that extra flavor to it, but when we do we miss the point.
To deny that there is a problem because you don’t like how it is being defined is a problem.
There was another situation in Chattanooga that I’ll never forget. I was about twenty years old. I was in a store in a mall and I saw a lady holding a child. They were both black. I had no way of knowing the gender of the child (babies are rather ambiguous – this is why some people get little girl’s ears pierced) and no way of knowing if this was the child’s mom or grandmother or aunt. I didn’t want to say “How is your little girl?” and get an earful. So I said “How is this one?” Oh – that was the wrong thing to say. “How dare you say ‘this one’! ‘This one’ is a child!” It went on and on. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to say. The more I think she just was waiting to be offended.
These situations in Chattanooga made me not want to talk to a black person ever again.
Then I moved to the DC area. I was overwhelmed with the difference. There was no chip on the shoulder. There was no sense of “you owe me”. Each person, regardless of race, talked to me the same. There was no sense of ‘higher’ or ‘lesser’ – they weren’t acting from a sense of having a scar that they thought I was reacting to. There was no “you owe me” mentality. It was refreshing. I see this kind of healthy attitude in Nashville too, and I’m encouraged, but there is still work to be done.
How much of people’s reactions to you come from your sense that they are going to react to you? I’m remembering The Dog Whisperer here – he would walk into a room with a dog that was uncontrollable. He would walk in calm and assured, and the dog would react totally differently. He expected calmness, and the dog became calm. How many of us forget that we are animal at the core? We are human, but we respond on an instinctual level to energy. If we expect bad, we are going to find it. If we expect good, we are going to find it.
If we lead the way expecting people to treat us badly, then we will find that is true. People give us what we expect. So it is time to expect good. Lead the way.
It is time to wipe the chalkboard clean and start over. I am tired of the old rules of behavior being applied to me. I didn’t own anybody’s family. I wasn’t raised in luxury. I am not to blame for all that has happened in the past. I will not take the blame for something I have no control over.
I’m trying to do what I can to make things better, but there has to be some meeting in the middle. I try to treat everyone the same. Respect. Common courtesy. Civility. But I expect the same in return. This is regardless of race.
It is my responsibility to help break down these walls, but it is also the responsibility of black people to stop building them up.