I grew up in profoundly white Eugene, Oregon, where I’d laugh at banners emblazoned, CELEBRATE DIVERSITY.
“What, as long as it’s not here?” I’d wonder.
Yet the whiteness of my hometown did not mean it was a racially hostile one. I nurtured no ill will for folks from different walks of life, and trusted those nearest and dearest me felt roughly the same.
It was against this backdrop that I was able to genuinely believe that the fact I’d witnessed no overt acts of racism meant racism was dead.
I began dating a black man shortly after I moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t think of him as a “black man,” but rather as a silly, sweet, sexy and smart man I had fun hanging out with. Indeed, it was only after he became the father of my child that he spoke words that blew my mind: “Our baby is going to experience racism someday.”
I discounted these words initially, though he told me he’d been called “n*****” plenty of times. But though my instinct was to discount his warning because its basis was so outside my personal experience, I couldn’t ignore the possibility there was more to this world than that which I’d personally experienced.
I started reading, from blogs to essays to research, and was shocked to discover how useless my personal experiences as a white woman were for gauging the presence or absence of racism in the modern world.
Since my son was born four years ago, I’ve been asked countless times where I got him, regardless of how much he looks like me. I’ve been asked if he’s mixed, or if he has a black daddy. I’ve heard passersby make derogatory statements about his skin color, as if it reflects a single useful thing about who he actually is. And, heartbreakingly, I’ve heard his many comments reflecting the idea that “dark” is bad. He’s not getting this at home, where his father and I tell him the world is made more beautiful by the diversity of its citizens, but he’s getting this idea somewhere.
I’ve written about a handful of these experiences on my blog, and have been astonished how many people offer up anecdotes of a black person being mean to them as indication that “reverse racism” is alive and well, while “original” racism today is nothing more than a byproduct of overactive imaginations. I’ve tried to encourage reflection on the idea that personal experience ought not be confused with systemic violation, and that the fact that a white person hasn’t personally recognized an act of racism doesn’t mean individual signs of a deep rooted problem haven’t actually occurred in their presence. I’m not honestly sure how successful my questions are, but I have to keep asking them, because I believe that we perpetrate injustice by pretending it must already be past.
I try not to throw up my hands in frustration, or think less of people for their individual anecdotes presented as societal fact, because it took me a very particular set of experiences to make me reconsider my assumptions about race, history and society. Without those experiences, I’d probably still happily but erroneously believe that racism is an artifact of bygone times.
That’s the biggest thing I’d ask people: that they consider the idea there is only so much they can see from where they are sitting. The anecdotes of any one person’s life can only go so far toward explaining the entire human experience.