As you may have noticed — or you would have noticed if you’d guessed that it was at all relevant — I don’t spend much time talking about race on this blog. It’s not that I have no thoughts on the subject. At one point in my life, I had enough thoughts on the subject to write a 300+ page transcript about it. But it has never been a topic that I have allowed to run my life.
It’s kind of difficult to describe my attitude about it.
I’m neither angry nor bitter. I have never in my life made any decision about anything with the thought in my head that I can’t do something because they won’t let me. I have never let my race interfere with anything that I decided I wanted to do. It is a fact of my appearance of which I am aware, in much the same way that I am aware that my eyes are brown and that I am 5’5″ tall.
But don’t mistake me. None of this means that I am unaware of the deeply embedded racism that is pervasive in the society in which I live. I don’t get angry when that racism rears its head in particularly spectacular ways (Dylan Root comes to mind) because I have developed a profound cynicism about it over the years of my life. I am no longer surprised or terribly disillusioned by anything I hear because I have never believed that mainstream America has made any real strides toward obliterating racism at all in the 45 years or so since I started paying attention.
In spite of that, on a day-to-day basis, I spend zero time pondering my blackness, or considering my blackness, or thinking about it in any way. For me, it’s just there. The only time it attaches itself to me as a viscerally felt part of my identity is when somebody else makes it a thing.
Am I weird for a black person? I don’t know. I might be.
So, why am I bringing all this up? Well, as I said, I don’t usually talk much about this subject on this blog but I read a post today that I felt I needed to riff off of, written by Doug Muder of the Weekly Sift blog. I really like this blog. It is well-written and thoughtful and Doug does a pretty good job of doing his homework, something that is valuable because it seems to be growing increasingly rare in this day and age.
Today, he published a post to attempt to answer the question posed by CNN’s Don Lemon to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at their last debate: What racial blind spots do you have?
Now, I have to hand it to this guy. He attacked the question with as much honesty and clear-sightedness of which I suspect he is capable and he is to be lauded for his courage. But his deep thinking provoked in me a need to respond.
The first (of two) racial blind spots he identified was this: Thinking about race seems optional.
And so, I have a hard time grasping that thinking about race isn’t optional for American blacks. To be black in America is to be constantly aware that many of the people around you are white, and that they might at any moment start reacting strangely to your blackness.
In my experience, that’s not how it works.
Like I said, I don’t walk around thinking about how black I am. I don’t think about it at all, in fact — until somebody (usually white) brings it to my attention. I certainly don’t spend all my time tense and on guard, waiting for somebody white to racist at me. I have spent so much of my life being the only black person in the room that I am really used to it. I’m so used to it that I don’t think about it, never did — until one of you people remind me of it.
It doesn’t usually come in some kind of hostile way. I don’t have any stories about being called a “nigger” or having somebody tell their kid not to play with me or being somewhere and having somebody be rude or threatening me with violence because of my race.
My stories are about people wanting to touch my hair. They are about people apologizing to me because they don’t have any of the kind of food they assume I will want to eat. The are about people telling me, with a straight face, that some black people are really nice.
And then there have been the countless times that something will happen, or something will be said, and everybody around me freezes in horror and waits for the explosion — because they think they know how I will react. When I don’t, they heave a sigh of relief and go back to pretending that they don’t see my race. But the fact of the matter is that they have a whole set of ideas about me, from what I eat to how I vote, from how many fathers my children probably have to what kind of music I like to listen to. If they judge me by the stereotypes, they are probably wrong about all those things but that’s the thing about stereotypes — nobody asks, they just assume.
Which brings me to Doug’s second racial blind spot: unconscious racism doesn’t count.
We may not call people niggers any more, but the stereotypes that were designed to keep niggers in their place are still with us.
But if unconscious racism is something I have to take into account, then I have to think about race all the time. And that’s another thing to project onto blacks and resent: Why do they make everything about race? Why can’t we just be people together?
The bottom line from where I sit is that race is nowhere near as important to people of color as it is to white people. You may be more conscious of your whiteness if you were suddenly dropped off in Africa but you shouldn’t assume that the Africans around you would care. They might find your appearance interesting because you are outside the norm in terms of your looks but I am not convinced that they would find it feasible to jump to a whole body of conclusions about what kind of person you are based on what you look like.
See, for white Americans, white is normal. So, there is a tendency to treat people of color in much the same way that really tacky people treat people who have physical handicaps or abnormalities. It would be rude to stare. Let’s show what great people we are by letting them know, at every possible opportunity, that we’re okay with their abnormality. We don’t mind it. In fact, we don’t even see it.
My race doesn’t really matter to me. I challenge you to let it cease to matter to you.
That’s where the rubber meets the road.