Recently I was told by a person of color that I’d ignored racist comments made by my white friends at a meeting we’d both attended. I was amazed—mortified. Why hadn’t I heard or recognized the racist remarks? How could my friends have made such remarks? The accusation seemed based on a huge misunderstanding.
I asked whether my accuser had assumed we were talking about race. I begged for the specific words used so that I could address the issue. But she replied only that, no, there was no misunderstanding. She hadn’t made assumptions, and she found it disheartening but predictable that I, like everyone else, would not want to lose my position and prestige or to address microaggressions. She advised me to be honest when looking at my friends and to recognize that it’s comforting to look around a room where everyone looks like me and assume they’re not racist. Clearly, she was disappointed in me.
I take seriously the criticism and counsel of a black person. I’ve learned enough about white privilege to realize that I and my friends might unwittingly be at fault. And microaggressions are tricky—sometimes intended to be complimentary to an individual but always demeaning to that person’s ethnicity or race. (“Courtney, I never see you as a black girl.” “ Are you really Asian?” “Are you sure you have the right room? This is an honors section.”) We could have tripped up. I am disappointed in myself.
But was my accuser right? When I’d told a former colleague and friend from Trenton High, a woman who is black, that in retirement I’d been attending a discussion group about race and white privilege, she fairly shouted at me “Why are you wasting your time?” I protested that I was learning from black people in the group. “They’re all victims. Move on!” she said in disgust as she hung up. I felt disappointed in myself then, too.
At Trenton High we rarely talked about race and never about white privilege—though that same colleague laughingly told me that, when I arrived at Trenton High, she’d thought, “White woman…? Probably can’t get a job anywhere else.” At Trenton High, values trumped race; black and white idealists battled the black and white staff members who preferred the status quo. Ironically, after I’d retired and begun attending discussion groups, a second black colleague complained that I thought too much about race. I can’t seem to please everyone, but I’m still more anxious to please black people than white people.
Am I racist? I guess that depends on whom I ask. Some black people perceive racism where others don’t. Some insist “Never tell me to ‘Get over it.’ ” Others cry “Move on.” But black people don’t think alike and don’t have to. White people don’t.
What now? I know better than to continue questioning my recent accuser about her perception of my racism. Such dismissiveness would only bolster her contention that I’m unaware of my privilege. Of course, I don’t want to be racist. It would be helpful to know exactly what alerted her to my friends’ racism, but I will probably never know. I’m grateful to have a diversity of black voices in my life and to have learned that no one black person speaks for all black people. So I will take my accuser’s criticism and counsel seriously—and move on.