Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Experience Is the Best Teacher

While I was eating with my co-workers today (I recently decided to work part-time for a while), the dangerous subject of racism came up in conversation.  Indiana, where we're located, has a long nasty history of racism, though of course most white Hoosiers are ignorant of it, as most white Americans are ignorant about the history of racism in our country.  One of my co-workers, a nice white lady, told us that she grew up in California, and she had never "experienced racism" there.  My first response was that there is certainly racism in California, especially against Latinos but of course against black people.  I could feel a buzz of discomfort at the table, so I chose my next words carefully: I'm a white person, so I've never really experienced racism either.  That brought us to the edge of debate, so she backed off and so did I.  There are many suitable places for debate on vexed issues, but work is not one of them.

I mention this because I think her wording inadvertently revealed something about the understanding of many white Americans on race and racism.  I would have to talk to her much more about her background to learn what I'd need to know about her upbringing and experience, and about her beliefs and attitudes about race; under the circumstances, that conversation is not likely to happen.  I'm willing to grant that by "experienced" she meant she'd never observed racism by other white people, as an uninvolved bystander, where she grew up, though I'd doubt even that.  But so many white people believe that black people are constantly playing the "race card" and exaggerate the prevalence of racism in America today, and are just looking to be offended by the innocent remarks of nice white folks, with the result that many whites think of racism as something that happens to them.  So I believe that on some level this woman probably did mean literally what she said: that she'd never "experienced racism."  Any American who can say such a thing is revealing his or her complicity in the obfuscation of racial issues that keeps the American status quo intact.