There’s this thing that happens when you make people aware of their own racism. They don’t like it. They get really defensive and angry and try to accuse you of turning things into an issue. A racial issue. I’m not sure when being called out on racism became more offensive than the racism itself, but I’ve been witness to deplorable behavior from people, whom I thought knew better, when their racist comments were pointed out to them.
Recently, after another atrocity involving the loss of a black life (who can remember which one, there are so many to keep up with), one of the ministers at my church posted these words to her Facebook page:
“white people, listen up. it’s time for us to allow ourselves to be called out, called back into authentic and compassionate relationships, and to be the revolution. lives are at stake, and we cannot wait any longer.”
Allow ourselves to be called out. It really is as simple as that. How else can we bring about change without making room for acceptance of our mistakes?
Like every person, I have at one time or another, had racist thoughts or exhibited racist behavior. It’s hard not to in our society. I try to correct myself when it happens and I have learned not to be defensive, but to instead apologize. I wish it weren’t so, but I feel like I have to be consistently mindful of this. Even still, I mess up sometimes. Here’s a story, albeit an embarrassing one, that proves it:
One night, many years ago, I had spent an evening out with friends, arriving home well after midnight. I came into my apartment, leashed up my dog, and went back outside to walk her. I had taken no more than fifteen steps from my door when I saw a man coming in my direction. A black man. I stopped in my tracks to see where he was going and he kept coming in my direction. I don’t know what the look on my face was, but I frantically started calling my dog back, certain that this man was coming to…what? I don’t know. Inflict some type of harm on me. Just as I was about to turn to go back inside, I got a look at the man’s face and his face was showing fear, too. Here we were, both afraid of each other. He put his key in the lock of the car parked right in front of my apartment and I then realized what a terrible mistake I had made. This man did not mean me harm. This man, I soon learned, was getting in his car to go work an overnight shift at the local grocery store. I awkwardly apologized to him. I introduced myself, as did he. He told me he saw that I was afraid so he was trying to get to his car quickly, certain I saw some danger behind him. I did not tell him, “Oh, you see, I get really afraid when I see a black man walking in my direction.” I’m sure I did not have to.
This incident has never left me, and I have never stopped feeling guilty about it. What part did I play in teaching him that by the eyes of the world, he is not to be trusted? If he were to tally up all the times he had experienced racism in his life, where would his encounter with me be on the list?
I like to tell myself that I would have reacted the same way if he had been a white man. And maybe that is true. Or maybe I would let a white man get much closer before allowing the panic to set in. It’s impossible to know. I do know that I have to let this experience be a part of my own story, shameful as it may be. It is important for me to remember, and to feel the embarrassment every time I recall it. I know that in order to help bring an end to racism, I have to accept the ways I have contributed to it. Uncomfortable as it may be, there really is no other way.