It happened again. Each time it happens, I am annoyed and not sure what to do. I’ve learned that drawing attention to it doesn’t help. It just makes an awkward situation more awkward. But I can’t ignore it. Let me explain.
A couple Sunday’s ago, my partner and I decided to take a little road trip. We wanted to do something different, to change things up for the day. We decided to visit a small city a couple hours from our home in Atlanta. As small cities go, we knew it had some companies near it which brought some international people to the region and helped to spur the local economy. We thought we’d check out the town, walk around and see what we found, have a couple of meals and maybe sample some craft beer. It would just be a nice day trip.
Yes, in many ways it was a great day. Near the city center, we found street musicians and artists and people enjoying a warm summer afternoon. It was really relaxing. But when we went to restaurants, shops, and pubs, something all too familiar happened: the staff acknowledged me but it seemed as though my partner was invisible to them. In these venues, the staff made eye contact with me, checked with me about ordering, and inquired whether I was satisfied. I’m not sure how much he was aware of it as it happened, but I sure was. Not being the quiet type, if he had something to say, he’d jump in the conversation. But a couple of times I wanted to say, “Hey, why don’t you ask the Asian guy? He’s the one paying for this. Do you want a good tip from him or not?”
If you didn’t know, my partner is Chinese. We’ve been together fourteen years. Our time together has taught me lots about racism.
I want to be clear about some things. I’ve had friends who were not white like me throughout my adult life. My friends have helped me to understand some of the limits of my whiteness. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have insight into some of the ways that being white creates privilege for me. It’s not because they told me about this thing called “white privilege.” Instead, I’ve often seen that I get treated differently than my friends who aren’t white.
I’m a good liberal. I’ve always believed that people shouldn’t be treated based on their race and that all people have dignity because they are human. But I also tended to think that it was “white supremacists” or members of the Klan who were racist. When I was younger, I didn’t understand that simply by being white I participate in racism. But I do.
When a waiter, a clerk in a shop, or anyone else acknowledges me and ignores my partner, I recognize that it’s a subtle form of racism. To be sure, it stupefies me when my partner is the one buying something and I’m standing in the background and I’m still the person spoken to first by a clerk. I’ve spoken to my partner about it and, to be honest, he often isn’t aware of it. I’ve learned not to point it out to him. Why bother him with it?
Yet, I think it’s worth talking about and writing about because most people don’t recognize or understand how far reaching racism actually is. Racism isn’t limited to the ways groups of people who are not white are more likely to be stopped, arrested, or shot by a police man. Yes, non-whites are more frequently reported for suspicious behavior and find it more difficult to obtain a loan. People who aren’t white are relegated to poor housing or less than adequate health care. Yes, all those things are forms of racism, but racism also includes our day to day treatment of others and works its way to the level of whether or not we acknowledge the presence of a person.
While laws changed because of the Civil Rights Movement, racism remains and holds a firm grip on our consciousness. It’s real and I frequently see it at work and experience some of how I benefit by being white in a racist culture.
Racism permeates all of our interactions. It isn’t always direct, like a racial slur or a discriminatory action. More often, it’s showing someone who looks like me preferential treatment because of skin color while those of other skin colors get poorer service or are simply ignored.
While it’s very tempting for me to be moralistic about racism and address racism as a sin against God and God’s creation, I’ll refrain from that. Instead, I think it’s more important to consider the way that racism permeates our daily lives. To that end, I ask: what do your day to day actions convey about your beliefs regarding people who are different from you? If you truly believe that each person is fundamentally good, has self-worth, and as much of a right to life as you do, then you’ll treat each person with respect and work to overcome racism in society. When enough of us understand this, racism and white privilege will begin to crumble.
Photo credit: art around via Foter.com / CC BY
© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.