The shooting of a black male teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, and the resulting street protests have gotten me reflecting on my own attitudes on race. It catapults me back in time to a summer several years ago when a home robbery occurred and I acted kinda badly.
First, the designation of race status is problematic. Many people are are biracial or even polyracial. It is difficult to determine a person's race just by looking at him or her. Take Dwayne The Rock Johnson, for instance. He looks white to me, but apparently he comes from an African-American background.
Further muddying the issue is the language we use to describe race. In particular, are Americans of African descent black, African-American, people of color, colored, negro, brothers and sisters, or something else? And does the term you use say more about you as a person than it says about the race?
For this post, I'm going to take an objective, scientific approach. I am going to call people of African descent melanin rich and people of European descent melanin poor. Using these terms does two things. First, it makes the issue of race one of biology. And second, it flips the usual way we think of race in the U.S.--blacks become "rich" and whites are made "poor."
As I reflect on my attitudes toward race and the way they have played out in my life, my mind keeps jumping back to my experience working in a high school with a mix of both melanin rich and melanin poor students.
Luckily, I wasn't raised in what you would call a racist household. Actually, race issues rarely came up at all. And I always tried to stay open minded and judge people based on their behavior rather than their looks. So it's not like I carried a lot of racial baggage with me when I began working at the school I mentioned before.
The group that gets the most short shrift in the melanin rich community is young males. At my school job, I came across everything from melanin rich boys who had been, were, or wanted to be in gangs to those whose main aspiration was to be drum major and go to college on a music scholarship. One young man in particular caught my attention. I'll call him Greg.
Greg was a big guy with a few pounds to spare. He wore glasses, dressed well, and smiled a lot. Though he wasn't one of my students, I saw him on a regular basis because he came into the library where I worked pretty frequently. But he didn't just drop by, sit at a computer, and ignore me completely like so many other students did. Instead, he dropped by the circulation desk and chatted. I remember he laughed a lot.
It was no surprise to me to come across a young melanin rich male who was so friendly and social, who approached me as a fellow human being instead of as a melanin poor authority figure who was out to get him, in spite of the common narrative in our culture that melanin rich teen males get the biggest kick out of stabbing and shooting people and generally creating havoc. Greg was a nice kid, and I enjoyed chatting with him.
Actually, it got to the point that I trusted him so well that I decided to ask him if he would be my designated dog walker when I had to stay late for work and couldn't get home to walk my dog. He agreed; like I said, he was a nice kid, and I was paying him on top of that.
Everything was going just fine. He walked Maggie when I needed him to. No problems. And then something happened that put a terrible dent in my psyche.
I had gone out of town for a couple of weeks during the summer for a trip I'd been planning for months, and when I got back, I discovered I'd been robbed. I'd left the house locked, of course, and I was flummoxed by the occurrence.
In spite of what you may be thinking, no, I didn't think Greg had done it. I knew he was a good kid. But there was one thing that was troubling me.
I had a habit of locking myself out of my house, so I had taken the (foolish) step of taping a key to the inside of door, just above the mail slot so that I could reach it if needed to. Had Greg seen the key? He was the only kid who had been in my house. Might he have mentioned it to a friend who wasn't quite the good kid Greg was?
I called his house, and his mom answered. I asked if I could speak with Greg, and she said he was taking a nap. I don't remember what I told her, if I mentioned the robbery or not, but I do remember asking her again if I could talk to him. She sounded a little annoyed when she repeated that he was sleeping. So I decided not to bother her any further and hung up.
Again, I can't remember the specifics of the conversation. Did I mention the robbery? If I did, there is no doubt that she thought I was accusing her son of doing it. I know I sounded a bit frantic on the phone, and the idea that I, a stereotypical "white" lady was hysterically calling her son in the middle of the afternoon probably put Greg's mom on the defensive.
For days and weeks, I wondered what had happened. I couldn't help but wonder if Greg had mentioned the key to someone, if a friend had even talked Greg into doing the misdeed himself. I hated the thought. Greg was a good kid. I trusted him. Still, I wondered. A refrain bumped around in my head--even good kids screw up sometimes.
When we started back to school in the fall, it doesn't seem like Greg treated me any differently. He was still affable, still friendly. Did I seem him less often? Did he not come into the library as frequently as he used to? Maybe not. I don't remember.
What I do remember is that guilt gnawed me like little, scrabbling mice. How could I have thought that Greg had had anything to do with the robbery? Was that the idea I had communicated to his mother? Had I bought into the stereotype of melanin rich young males? And more insidious, what did the idea that I had suspected other young men in Greg's peer group, boys he might have been friends with, say about my own notions of race and crime? The dialogue bickering in my head was sickening, and it sits with me still.
Later, months later, I found out who was responsible. And guess what? It wasn't Greg. But you already knew that, right? And it wasn't any of Greg's peers either. In fact, it was my melanin poor, trashy neighbor. Apparently, the guy was responsible for a series of robberies in the neighborhood. He must have seen that I was gone and taken advantage of the situation. I should add that after the robbery, I had a deadbolt added to the front door--a step I should have taken from the beginning.
In the end, I never discussed the incident again with Greg, or at least I don't remember doing so. I never apologized. I wasn't sure if I should. The whole situation was embarrassing and made me uncomfortable, and so I am left with the realization that I am one of those well-intentioned, melanin poor ladies who feels great guilt and embarrassment over issues of race in our culture.
One more thing--we think of racist attitudes as belonging exclusively to sheet-wearing zealots who burn crosses in people's yards, but racism is not always so apparent. I watched a documentary recently about melanin rich women and how ideas about skin color play out in their lives and in our culture. One scene in particular was particularly unsettling. The interviewer was talking to a very young melanin rich girl. She couldn't have been over six years old. She was looking at a cartoon drawing of girls with different shades of skin color from very dark to see-through white. The interviewer asked the little girl which child was the pretty child. The little girl answered the white child. The interviewer asked who was the ugly child. The girl said the black child. Who was the smart child? The white child. Who was the dumb child? The black child.
The scene was horrifying. It made me want to scream aloud. But it demonstrated a powerful idea. Racist ideas are so inherent in our culture that even children of so-called minority groups absorb them.
And it reveals something to me as well. I don't want to be a racist. I look down on people who think in prejudicial ways. However, perhaps there are racist ideas entrenched deep in my psyche that I'm not aware of or of which I'm completely in denial.
The thought is scary, but even more than that, it makes me sad.
After some reflection, a new perspective has opened in my mind--Greg's. He is the person whose ideas I should be most concerned with. And since I've lost touch with Greg, I cannot ask him the questions I wonder about. After the phone call, did he wonder if I was "that racist white lady" as this blog post is titled? Did he shrug it off? Did he still think of me of the nice library lady whom he liked to talk to? And more than his opinion of me, how did it affect his thoughts about race? Did it make him feel like he needed to be extra cautious around melanin poor people because they would always think the worst of him? Did it place a bit of extra burden on his shoulders because of his race and how it placed him in society?
Maybe I am making too much of the incident. After all, Greg didn't treat me any differently after that summer. Yet, years later, I still feel guilty. I still feel like I have earned the title of being that racist white lady.
Word and Book Lover.