Monday, June 22, 2020

I’m a racist

Read Time: 1.5 minutes

“Don’t walk with him to school.”

Richard Taylor and I were in the fourth grade together. I liked walking with him. Two of us together were less likely to draw the attention, and the meanness, of the bigger boys.

I’d learned to be afraid of Dad’s wrath. So I didn’t ask why.

But I knew why: Richard was Black.

When I first heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” I immediately thought, “but all lives matter.” In that moment I completely missed the point. The point that Black lives clearly didn’t matter enough, and that white lives – my life – did.

And the larger point: that in spite of all my struggles, from foster homes to flunking the fourth grade, my privilege had been there all along, helping me succeed at every step along the way, right up to the position I’m in to write this. Something Richard would never be able to say, or know the feeling of.

I’m deeply uncomfortable writing this.

Privilege: Some have it, some don’t. That’s the way civilization works. Always has.

Civilization as we know it today stems from when the oldest governing states were born with the invention of organized agriculture. Agriculture required lots of labor. Sometimes the labor was voluntary, sometimes conscripted; and when that didn’t work, slavery did. Lots of evidence exists showing that the oldest states used military power to get and hold a big enough labor force to maintain themselves.

James C. Scott does a good job of explaining this early history in his book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

Things haven’t changed much. Massive numbers of cheap laborers is a fundamental ingredient of today’s civilized life, and it’s the basic requirement of capitalism. Keeping labor costs low is fundamental to keeping the prices of goods and services low. Racism is applied to keep wages for Black and brown people at the lowest levels possible.

My father was poor and white, perhaps only one step up the social and economic ladder from our Black neighbors. By telling me not to walk to school with Richard, he thought he was protecting me from slipping from our precarious poor white status down to Richard’s level.

Thinking about “Black Lives Matter” brought the memory of Richard, and my dad’s decree, back into focus. Reminding me that I was raised to be a racist.

Reminding me that some of the racism stuck.

When I say it stuck, I mean I rode my white privilege to success professionally and financially without previously recognizing it. And now I have to admit that, face it, and figure out what I can do about it.

12 Comments

  • Steve S. says:

    Me too, I’m a racist and my first comment was the same…all lives matter too…but…not. Thanks for putting in words what you needed to, it aligns with me and my story. Thank you more for your courage to come out with it into the broader community. As they say, the first step to growth is starting from where you’re at! Well bragged, courageous and real! Thanks Ted!

  • Bella Banbury says:

    Well done Ted. It takes a lot to acknowledge the discomfort and speak up.

  • Ryan Diener says:

    Thanks for posting, Ted.

    At first I searched for the proof from my past as to how or why I was not racist, but I found that it’s ultimately more powerful to acknowledge the invisible (to me) white privilege that I have had throughout my life.

  • KH says:

    Thank you, Ted.

    Articulating this kind of typical white American experience (of casual racism and of ignorance of what privilege affords) in context is helpful in being able to start conversations with people who “don’t get” what Black Lives Matter means, and importantly, that it’s not exclusionary to “all lives.” It’s just that “Black Lives Matter” needs to be said, and repeated, and repeated, because it’s not being demonstrated by the actions of many people in our country and around the world.

    • Ted says:

      Thanks Kate, well noted. It’s so woven into the fabric of our society. Sadly. I need to write more about this. The writing helps me understand with more clarity.

  • Brenda says:

    Do you happen to know where Richard is today?

  • christine shafner says:

    HI Ted,
    Thanks for posting this story. I now think of my white privilege every time I interact with police, and every time I am on the edge of calling for assistance with 911. I’ve been in no way afraid to call police and expect they’ll help (rather than hurt) and thats because of the color of my skin and how the police will react to me. Not the case for others.

    Growing up in the 70s, I remember a neighbor coming to my parents door, asking them to sign a petition. The petition was intended to keep a black family, who had purchased a house around the corner, from actually moving in. (the future neighbor was upper-middle class…an attorney) My middle-class town was about 2% POC back then.

    The petitioning neighbor was rather surprised, and then indignant, when my dad sent them away. Crazy. (after all that the neighbors did move in, and had a boy my age that I attended middle school with. We became friends… I noticed not many sat with us at lunch, even though he was really approachable.)

    It would be miserable to have to deal with racial slams, assumptions, stereotypes and daily micro-aggressions that anyone with ‘more-than-allowed’ melanin in their skin have to deal with constantly. It would be hard to not get soured to society.

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