This is the first in a series of blogs on overcoming racism. Although I’m no expert, I believe that I’ve made progress in recognizing and overcoming my own racism. Perhaps some of my insights will be useful.
Some of my liberal white friends have recently confided that they are afraid of groups of black teenagers. Perhaps they’re revealing their secret now because the police brutality in Ferguson and New York has made them examine their own racism. Perhaps they tell me because they think that I, having worked at Trenton High, will be able to help them deal with their guilt. I’ll try.
Fear of a large group of young people seems to me a commonsense response in some circumstances. So my advice about deciding whether the fear is racist is to ask, “Would I feel the same if the group were of my own race?”
Plenty of black people are afraid of black gangs. A black friend from Princeton was passing out pamphlets in Washington, DC when a group of black teenagers approached. She and her daughter ran to their car, jumped in, and locked the doors. Our janitor at Trenton High, a black resident of Trenton, armed himself with a sawed off weed-whacker for his walk home. He needed it to ward off teenage muggers. An old lady was rolled by a bunch of black girls on crack just last week!
We wouldn’t call the janitor or my black friend racist. And if I crossed the street to avoid an unruly crowd of white kids, I wouldn’t be accused of racism.
A white friend of mine rode her bike to K-Mart but didn’t lock it because a group of black kids was standing near the bike rack. Locking it would show that she didn’t trust them, and that would be racist. The bike was stolen. I bet that, if the group of kids had been white, she would have locked the bike. I also bet that a black biker would have locked her bike regardless of the race of the kids. Sometimes, in our eagerness not to be seen as racist, we overlook common sense.
My black male friends are deeply hurt and offended when white people cross the street, tuck up their handbags, and show similar distrust of them. After all, white people don’t behave like that when passing other white people. Likewise, my black female friends resent being “helped” more than white shoppers when browsing in clothing stores.
Such differential treatment is racist and sometimes backfires. At a sporting goods store, a group of black teenagers came to exchange a pair of sneakers. They showed the cashier the sales slip, but, as they set off for the sneaker department, the code for “Watch out for shoplifters” came over the PA. Meanwhile a group of white teenagers, wearing trench coats and boots in spite of the warm June weather, had entered the store. While the store’s personnel followed the black kids, the white kids walked out with stashes of pilfered items under their coats.
Our reaction to groups of another race is often used as a litmus test for racism, but I question the validity of the test. Isn’t it natural, even atavistic, to distrust groups in general? Compare, for example, our inborn reaction to meeting a pack of dogs versus meeting just one dog. Groups do differ from individuals. Wariness of a “gang” of teenagers may be especially justified. The teenage brain is not fully developed. There’s peer pressure. Someone makes a dare. The group provides anonymity and support.
So, to my liberal white friends, I say, “Don’t worry about groups.” Instead, catch yourself whenever you think or speak about black people as if all were alike – a “they.” Give individuals who are black the same respect you give whites. And, while examining your own racism, notice the institutional racism that’s all around us. That racism is far more insidious and deserves our attention.