by: Kevin Sparrow
I’ve been a racist since at least the age of seven. While my mother and brother sat through his fifth-grade orientation, I was forced to wait and entertain myself with only a notebook, some broken crayons and a chalkboard in a tucked away corner of the middle school library. I was an avid reader, but being on the verge of first grade, the big kid books that surrounded me were daunting–I could only fantasize about the illustrated young reader books I was familiar with at that time.
A partial word from one story that I had read recently stuck in my mind because I found it funny, but unfortunately it was only the suffix of what turned out to be “Piggers,” one of the characters of the story. I could not come up with the first letter for the life of me and was strangely methodical, so I decided to write the letters I did know on the chalkboard and file through consonants alphabetically until I reached the one that sounded correct. Here and there I would take a moment with letters that seemed to fit before moving on, but I deliberated a little too long on “n,” coinciding with the moment one of the mothers arrived late. The first thing she saw was that word and me puzzling it out. She looked at me enraged and said, “Erase that right now,” so quickly and sternly I of course obeyed and just sat in my seat until it was time to go. She left within a matter of seconds to join the meeting in progress, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach, not understanding what she had been so upset about.
It was a long few months later, maybe even a year, when I saw a story on ABC News discussing “the N word” and recalled that moment. Her reaction made some sense, though I still did not comprehend the full historical context of the term and still felt guilty without understanding why. No adult had ever discussed that term with me or the history surrounding it; that’s not something the American Girls series touched on even with one of my favorite characters, Addy, a former slave. I don’t think we even had discussions of race in the classroom until I was in fifth grade myself and was reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
I grew up in a mostly homogenized small city an hour’s drive west of Chicago that saw some diversity due to the draw of the state university. We had multi-racial classrooms but being primarily white and solidly middle-class, I don’t know how impactful those conversations were–racial matters and systems of privilege seemed far removed in what we idealized as an egalitarian community but was one that obscured the divisions between white, black, Asian and Latino students. I look back now and understand how necessary and just that guilt I felt about writing that word was, and that previous efforts to feel better about being racist were to alleviate that guilt, not own it.
Racist behavior is often not intentional; in fact, it is more often borne out of assumption than acknowledged discrimination. A major flaw in anti-racist rhetoric is much of it seems centered around trying not to appear racist rather than just not actually being racist. White privilege perpetually (read: every day) benefits white people, so we benefit from racism even without electing to. And that makes us racist.
I have seen more times than I care to, in real life and online comment boards, people responding to a racially charged event or story to be careful when “throwing around the word racist;” this equates the damage done by the original oppression suffered by the marginalized individual or group to a perceived damage to someone’s character. This only serves to derail the conversation and keep us all at odds, and worse, it excuses that racist behavior so no ownership is taken by the injuring party. White people: we are racists inherently by virtue of living in a system that advantages our saturation of melanin and easy assimilation. Not wanting to be racist and avoiding doing or saying things that read to us as overtly racist doesn’t take the burden of responsibility off our shoulders. If your end goal is not being racist, you’re not doing a good job being an ally. You’re turning the focus of the dialogue back on yourself and away from listening to and advocating for others.
Don’t think claiming color-blindness, or its twin “post-racial,” gets you off the hook. These are tools of cultural erasure; they promote assimilation, validating a white experience for all at the expense of unique worldviews of people of color. It ignores the realities of race and how it affects class and mobility in America. The desire to want racial equality requires work and it requires being aware of how you are being treated differently from your friends of color. Color-blindness is the band-aid solution toward racial harmony, and it’s one of those soggy, gross band-aids your roommate leaves behind in the shower.
There are no easy outs; in fact, there are really no outs that aren’t cop-outs. Don’t let the title of this piece confuse you: this isn’t a how-to guide or recipe. There are not simple things you can do everyday to simply not be racist, though you should stop slinging around “ghetto,” “thug,” “nappy” and other appropriative words with abandon. Working toward ending systemic oppression–not racism– is about taking responsibility. Awareness of privilege is your responsibility. Listening to your friends and not trying to pacify or explain racist behavior is your responsibility. Advocating for marginalized people is your responsibility. This isn’t a call to other white people to sit down and shut up; more of a sit back, listen and learn from people of color, and then advocate.
So, how can we not be racist? The answer is currently that we can’t, not without major systemic changes. What we can do is check privilege, be fierce allies and call out other people when they are engaging in racist behavior, educating them in what constitutes racist behavior. I’m still a racist and I’m not trying not to be because it’s not an achievable goal. What I am doing is being better to people marginalized because of race and working to understand mutual needs I can help take action on. And maybe I’ll finally learn a thing or two about what is okay to write on a chalkboard.
Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness is both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.