I choked on my own racism a few weeks ago.
Before I explain what I mean, my need to proclaim “but I’m not a racist” is crushing.
Some ‘yes, buts,’ if you will.
Yes, but … I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia at a time when it was affectionately known as the “Lily White Northeast.” That’s because the only people of color you saw there were in service to the white population. I honestly don’t remember seeing a black man until I was in junior high school. If you remember my sister’s blog called The Help, you know that much of our childhood was shaped by a fantastic African-American woman named Francis. She instilled a respect for people of different races and religions in me from an early age. Because I loved her so much, if I’d ever thought about it, I would certainly say I wasn’t racist then.
Yes, but …Years later, I would explain how I had black friends in junior high as a result of our school district’s desegregation efforts. At one point, there were ‘race riots,’ essentially white and black kids fighting over the stuff kids fight about. I thought so much of myself because I had black friends and didn’t know which side to align with. It would be years before I understood that even having such a choice was an example of my white privilege.
Yes, but… Around 19, I fell in love with a black man. I knew my family would never accept such a relationship, and truthfully, I still had visions of little white Jewish babies. We broke it off, but I loved him for much of my life and later, as adults, we married for a number of years.
Yes, but … Over the years, I’ve been involved with social justice organizations that focused on anti-racism and anti-oppression efforts. For many years, I was a part of a group called “White Aspiring Allies to People of Color.” A small group of white people, we gathered to discuss our own internal racism and how to be an effective ally in the efforts to end broader expressions of racism. We called ourselves ‘aspiring allies’ because we felt it was up the Women of Color Network, to whom we were accountable, to decide if we were, in fact, being effective allies. I learned about white privilege, how to recognize it, and how to not take advantage of it.
All of these ‘yes, buts’ are my dismal efforts to minimize a recent experience in which my continuing and apparently pervasive racism smacked me in the face. I signed up for dental insurance through the Marketplace and had to choose a provider based on location. I selected one based on nothing other than its proximity to my home. On the day of my first appointment, as I began the drive, I passed through my neighborhood which is predominantly white. A few miles later, I entered an area which was largely Hispanic based on billboards, stores and the people I saw going about their business. A discomfort I neither liked nor expected began to grow in the pit of my stomach. It registered in my brain, but quietly, almost a whisper of thoughts. More miles and now I was clearly in an African American neighborhood. The whisper was no longer soft, but turned into a roar of thoughts. “I picked the wrong place.” “Maybe I should cancel the appointment and find somewhere else,” that somewhere else, of course, being in a ‘better’ neighborhood. Huge shame washed over me for even having such visceral reactions.
Perhaps because of the anti-racism work I’ve done, I, at least, was able to have a severe conversation with myself, pointing out how unconscionable I was being, how my presumptions of quality revolved around skin color, and what it would mean about me if I didn’t keep the appointment.
I kept the appointment. And, of course, the staff was pleasant, the dentist was great, and I left with clean teeth and no cavities. More importantly, I left realizing how much remains beneath our surfaces, and how more work I needed to do if I am ever to be an effective ally to people of color in our efforts to end racism.
Leslie can be reached at:
Leslienmalkin@outlook.com or https://www.facebook.com/leslie.malkin.7