You May Think You Know

Do you ever start to feel like you have a handle on a concept or principle, and then something happens that turns everything you thought you knew on its head and also smacks you in the face?

I’ve been reading books and blogs, keeping up with the news, listening to podcasts that broaden my perspective. I decided I wanted to become a more aware, more culturally sensitive, more (dare I say it) #woke individual (I dared. Don’t @ me), and I’ve taken steps to make that desire my reality. I have informed opinions, but I hold them loosely. I’m not afraid to be challenged or to be proven wrong.

But sometimes the scope of my persisting ignorance trips me up unexpectedly.

I have these three guy friends. One is Syrian, one is Kenyan, and one is Portuguese. We were hanging out one day, and two of us were hungry so we walked to Chipotle while the other two went to the grocery store to buy Bailey’s for Irish coffee. When we reconvened, the two friends who had gone to the store told us that an employee had followed them around and asked them repeatedly if they needed any help—but in a way that didn’t suggest helpfulness as much as it did “I’m keeping an eye on you, so don’t do anything sketchy.”

I listened and my heart dropped. All the podcasts I’ve heard and the books I’ve read about racism and its consequences never forced me to consider what it must be like for my own friends, and never asked me to imagine how it would feel to experience discrimination on a daily basis. How do you respond when you realize people you love are subject to the atrocity of prejudice?

Another night, same friends: my Portuguese friend was explaining the difficulty of building a good credit score as a non-natural born citizen. He’s fought tooth and nail for his score, opening multiple accounts and making sure to pay all his balances on time. I checked my score out of curiosity, and with my one account and a higher utilization percentage, it was better than his. And again, the slap in the face: I have never worried about my credit score, just like I have never worried about grocery store employees looking at me as a threat. No matter how much I learn, and how much awareness I gain, I may never understand the full extent of my privilege.

Netflix just released a new season of Dear White People. I’m really not sure whether this show takes any steps in a good direction, and I plan to inquire of friends who could speak to this. In the meantime, I’ve been watching the new episodes (so that I can participate more actively in these future conversations, obviously. It’s research.) and an interaction between one of the white characters and one of the African-American characters stuck out to me. The white character talks about “weaponizing” his privilege to help those who experience discrimination, and the African-American character rips him a new one as she explains all the reasons why his approach is completely wrong and totally unhelpful. This makes sense to me—reciprocal vitriol doesn’t cancel the original hostility out, it just multiplies it.

But if weaponizing one’s privilege isn’t a useful course of action, what is? Because maybe the only thing worse than trying to fight hate with hate is taking no action at all.

I wrote another post about race and privilege after the rallies in Charlottesville, and I didn’t have a definite answer to this question then. I don’t have one now either, because my Google searches for “how to respond when friends experience racism” didn’t yield the concrete list post-type results I think I was hoping for. There’s a lot of really excellent insight couched in sarcasm out there, though, like this piece on white deflection (read the first paragraph, if not the rest of it. The piece ultimately offers no advice on how to proceed). Do check this one out. Harriot takes no prisoners with his pointed remarks, like the ones he offers about “allyship”: “I do not consider myself an ally or an ‘activist’ to or for anyone because I know there is no line of demarcation between them and me. I am a human.”

And that’s the crux of it, I think. We are all humans, and maybe the most critical step we can take is to internalize this truth. When our starting point is equal and mutual respect and appreciation for all people given our shared human experience, we can begin to develop a genuine interest in the individual experience. Then the actions we do take will stem from an honest desire to inspire change for the better, instead of a sense of obligation and guilt or a compulsion to check the boxes that make us feel like we’re good, benevolent people. Those will be the actions worth taking.

“It is possible to be aware of every incident of white supremacy around you and never acknowledge how your own actions may contribute to white supremacy.” It’s also possible, as I have learned, to think you have a pretty good idea of what racism looks like and still be absolutely floored when your friends experience it. This sounds discouraging, but it shouldn’t deter us from continuing to pursue understanding. Rather, it should ward off complacency as we listen, read, learn, and fight to create a space in which every person (regardless of race and gender and political or religious beliefs and orientation and any other characteristic that’s become an instrument of division) can be seen and heard and known.

I’m going to go finish watching Dear White People now.

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