Racism additionally affects us when it causes us to choose to do the wrong thing. I’ve been thinking about this lately because of two incidents that involved me. In the first, I was riding in a car driven by a friend. We were about a block and a half away from my house on a cross-street when I saw two of my neighbors’ children.
It was late, cold out, and they were both in pajamas and bare feet. So I had a pretty good idea that their parents did not know where they were.
I jumped out of the car and went to the kids. They are about four and two. One is quite rambunctious, to put it mildly. And so I tried to persuade/cajole/entice them to walk back with me to their house.
The one thing I did not do? I did not put my hands on either of them. I was very conscious of not touching either child. And I did not attempt to put them in the car.
I felt my color very strongly. And I felt their color as well. They are white.
In a second instance, I had taken a neighbor’s daughter to the park. She is the same color as I am. While we were there, she was playing with a little white girl who offered the information that she was four years old. I could not see any parent or caretaker with her. We were there for about an hour and a half. Nobody was watching the little girl. And I knew what I should have done–I should have taken her to the authorities and reported that she had been left alone in a public park for an extended period of time.
But I didn’t.
When we left, the little girl began to follow. And then I became really distraught. I didn’t want to leave her alone, but I couldn’t stay. I knew what I should do. But once again I felt an extreme awareness of being a person of color with a white child. I told the little girl she should stay in the park. She continued to tag along. And then a white woman approached from the opposite direction.
When she saw us, she became furious. “GET AWAY FROM THOSE PEOPLE!” she screamed at the little girl.
So it was okay to leave a small child unattended in a public park as long as “those people” were not around.
In the first instance, I did not want to get involved. I really did not. But the children were neighbors. As we approached their house, I saw their mother running around frantically. So I called out to her and she yelled for her husband. And when I saw the husband’s face, I was gripped by a terrible fear. Because he, too, was furious. He came raging down the sidewalk and I thought that he was going to strike me.
And this man was my neighbor. He was not unknown to me.
It turned out that his rage was directed at his children. But he did not say a word to me.
And I realized that in both situations, I was afraid of doing the right thing because I was afraid my actions would be misinterpreted. I should note that they have been misinterpreted in the past, and it is this history that affects my actions today. Was it reasonable to be afraid of my neighbor? Was it reasonable to be so tentative with his children? And what about the little girl in the park?
In situations where danger presents itself, I still try to intervene. I mentioned the car incident(s) in another post. But last summer I was stuck in a miles-long traffic jam. The car next to me was visibly overheating and yet the driver had her air-conditioning running. I began to roll down my window to tell her that she needed to turn the air off.
But then I rolled the window back up.
In situations that are not urgent, do I still have a moral or ethical requirement to act despite the potentially racist response? How long can one’s civility and decency survive if it is not returned? My hope is that one’s basic decency remains intact. But my fear is that it cannot even if you struggle to maintain.
And sometimes when I think about this, I think I’ll be damned if I’ll let white people make me become like them! Racism is an invasive poison. It seeps in despite vigilance.
I wonder too what white people are thinking when they choose not to do the right thing because of racism. Sinoangle has listed the emotional response when people of color are in relationships with white people who condone racism. I think of the effects: loss of self-esteem, self-doubt, internalized racism.
But I wonder about the effect on the white person. Can a white person ignore racism that they recognize with no ill effect? What does it mean to be in a racist situation as a person of color and the white people all remain mute? What does it mean for white people to pass by without intervening when they see a person of color being physically attacked? Why do I know of so many racist assaults that happened in the middle of the day where nobody intervened?
I always fear that I lose a piece of my humanity when I treat white people as they have treated me. But do white people have any of the same fears? Or do they not see my humanity or their own humanity at all?