Monday, March 05, 2007

Racism revisited

I keep thinking about the scenario that I described a few of posts ago in National Brotherhood of Skiiers and about some of the comments I've gotten, and as a result, I've drawn an entirely new conclusion about the scenario and what it meant.

(if you don't feel like linking back and you're not sure what the NBS post was about, I'll sum it up: In Steamboat, Colorado, a highish-end ski resort, I was riding on a shuttle bus populated primarily by well-dressed people of color when a well-dressed black man struck up a conversation with me that ended with me telling him that I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and him cracking, "You mean the part of the city where all the rich white folks live?")

What I wrote about this experience was that it felt as if I was experiencing what it was like to be a target of racism - by which I mean, to be treated as a stereotype, to have assumptions made about me based on the color of my skin. Some commentators accused me of, at best, being thin-skinned, at worst, being painfully naive.

I now wish to revise my thoughts on the experience.

I can't really say that what the man said constituted racism targeted at me. It would be more accurate to say that what the man said was an acknowledgement of the racism that exists against black people in general. And THAT is what made me uncomfortable. Allow me to explain what I mean....

I am making an assumption that the reason the man was able to say what he said to me without my reacting angrily was that he made the assumption that most people who look like me and talk like me would not perceive anything insulting about being referred to as "rich white folk". Which is to say that there is no negative stigma with being white and affluent. On the other hand, at the very moment that the man spoke to me, I too was making an assumption, and that assumption was that I would have no right to refer to his skin color without making both of us uncomfortable. For example, it would have seemed to me to be crass and to break some sort of social code of right and wrong if I were to say something to him about "rich black skiiers".

In order for these assumptions to operate, there has to be a deeper underlying assumption that being white carries no stigma, but that being black might, and both of us have to be aware of that assumption. Both of us had to have made that assumption and to have acknowledged that the other made it as well. For me to feel that I had no right to refer to his skin color, and for him to feel that he had a right to refer to mine, for me to feel that I had to accept his reference to my skin color and for him to feel insulated against any possibility that I might refer to his (again, I am assuming that we are both intelligent, socially aware people), well, there has to be an awareness of racism existing if not within us individually than within our society as a whole.

Thus, what the man on the bus said to me was not a statement that belied his racism toward whites, but rather his acknowledgement of society's racism (past or present) toward blacks.

Now, as Stan Marsh said in the classic "Out of the Closet" episode of South Park: Sue me.



boodiba said...

If I were in your shoes, I'd probably feel that the guy expected me to be apologetic. For being white and living in the Upper East Side. Which is bullshit.

It goes both ways. The sensitivity street. Reminds me of how people think it's fine to tell someone they look too skinny, whereas everyone accepts it's rude to tell someone they're looking a bit fat.

In the end I suppose forgiveness is called for on all sides. It IS harder for most blacks. Or has been. Not so far removed. Granted I don't personally benefit from any of the old-boy nepotism that's helped many whites. But still.

"YC" said...

Yeah, like I have to feel guilty about being white and affluent and also like I have no right to answer back because I'm white. The sensitivity part comes in where I realize that this only happens because there IS racism. Like I said in my post, there's an implied assumption of racism that makes this conversation possible. The fat thin thing is a great analogy. Clearly, there is discrimination against fat way beyond any so-called discrimination against skinniness (what discrimination against skinniness?!). As a result, a fat person can tell a skinny person to gain weight, but a skinny person would never DARE tell a fat person to lose weight. The mere speaking of the words, "Eat a sandwich" by a fat person to a skinny person are a tacit acknowledgement of the discrimination that exists against obesity.

boodiba said...

For me, the thing that keeps my indignation in check is realizing that we've all got our own problems.

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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