Being Racist, Being Angerist

The first time I can remember seeing in person the effects of race, I was about five. Fourth of July was coming up. My dad and I had gone to a fireworks stand to buy things that go boom. We went to a little roadside stand. When we walked up, the man behind the counter said, “Can I help you, sir?”

I stood in the sweltering Arkansas heat and wondered, why is he calling my dad “sir”? He and my dad were about the same age. It wasn’t like dad was his dad, and besides, cashiers and store owners didn’t normally call dad “sir”.

You know the punchline, of course: my dad and I are white, and the man running the fireworks stand was black, and in the South, blacks called whites “sir”.

The punchline you don’t know is this: it took me years to realize why that man had called Dad “sir”. If I weren’t white, I would have learned about the effects of race much earlier. As it was, I didn’t really learn about it until I was nearly ten.

I did learn early on that racism was bad. One time at my grandparents’ house, my granddad talked about “those niggers”. “Dad!” my mom replied. That led to a later talk with me about race and race relations, and the unrepentant views of certain south Alabamians.

What I didn’t learn is the privilege I enjoy as a straight white male, the benefits of being my society’s norm. People view me as an individual, and my successes and failures are my own. No one sees me screw up a calculation at work and says, “You know, white people just aren’t good at math.” No one asked me how receiving an award for teaching was paving the way for other white physics teachers.

My privilege allowed me to form an idealized view of myself and my world. I’m colorblind. I don’t see race. I want everyone to be treated equally.

Only I wasn’t colorblind. I would be scared of the group of black kids walking the other way on the street. I would expect the Asian students in my physics classes to do better than others. I would cling to stereotypes and be surprised when people didn’t live up or down to them.

Last year, I read what Johnny Wink, a former professor of mine, had to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. and racism. One part completely changed the way I think about racism.

I wanted that young woman across the aisle to know that I wasn’t like all the rest-but I was-I had been a minute before and I would be, on and off, later in my life, depending on how the remission from that long and cruel disease has gone.

I read that and thought, yes. Yes, that is it exactly. I’ve long been uncomfortable thinking of myself as a racist, and in racially-charged discussions I see that same discomfort rising off other whites like heat off of pavement, but I am a racist, on and off.

That’s an uncomfortable thing to say and uncomfortable thing to read about someone, the kind of thing that makes you shift in your chair and want to move on. Stay with me a moment more.

I have a terrible temper. Throughout my life I’ve worked to control it and channel it appropriately, but at times I still lash out. When I do, it doesn’t matter what my reasons were. It doesn’t matter that I’m a nice guy and that most of the time I may get things right. What’s in my heart doesn’t matter. What matters is my actions. The right thing to do is to calm down, admit that I screwed up, and try not to screw up again.

Luckily, the stigma that’s attached to being a racist isn’t attached to being an angerist. If you’re an angerist, you’re not necessarily a bad person, you’re just doing bad things. You can be a good person and still suffer from angerist tendencies.

In many people’s minds, that’s not the case with being a racist. As a society, America has constructed a faulty logical chain that goes as follows: Racism is bad. Therefore acting in racist ways is bad. Therefore being a racist is bad. Therefore once you’re a racist, you’re always a racist. Therefore I can’t admit to racist actions because then I’m a racist and, like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, I’ll never wash that away. I can’t be a good person if I ever support anything racist.

In part that’s why, when confronted with an incidence of racism, so many of us don’t talk about the incident itself. Instead we talk about the purity of people’s hearts. “He’s a good person!” we say. “He didn’t mean to do anything racist.” As if wishing you didn’t do racist things absolves you of your actions. “It’s okay, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

What can I do, then? I can be more aware, for one thing. I have the privilege of ignoring racism, but I can choose to put that aside, as much as I can.

I can speak out about racism, even though that makes me extremely uncomfortable. This post is part of International Blog Against Racism Week. At first I wasn’t going to join in. Posting about racism opens me up to criticism that I could otherwise avoid. Eventually I realized that was stupid. By sitting on my hands I was giving in to the impulse that kept me wilfully ignorant of racial issues for years.

Look, I’m going to make mistakes. I don’t know what it’s like to deal with race-based discrimination. I’m barely one step removed from the stereotypical well-meaning-but-clueless white guy. I’m going to say stupid things and people will slap me around for it, and I’ll have to deal with that. Part of being willing to deal with my racism means being willing to give up being comfortable and make mistakes and deal with them, and not to expect a medal for doing so.

That’s the final thing I’ve realized: racism isn’t about me as an individual white man. I’m not the protagonist of this story. Dealing with racism isn’t primarily about white people and how white people handle racism and how white people have had experiences that are similar to racial discrimination. In the end, the primary question isn’t, “What can I do?” It’s, “What needs to be done?”

Often, to get the answer to that question, what I can do is shut up and listen.

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