The cost of racism, part 3

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?

8 thoughts on “The cost of racism, part 3

  1. As a white person trying to learn to be an anti-racist ally, I do have some of that fear of losing my humanity when I don’t intervene. Often I do intervene in word or deed; the one time I came across a group of white men attacking a black woman, I put myself between them and her, gambling that they would not hit a white woman (correctly, as it turned out, and I can tell you I feel conflicted about that, too.) But too often, I also don’t do as well as I should; I’m less likely to speak out at work, for instance, where I’m uneasy about my position. And in the attack incident, by the time the police arrived I was too flustered to remember to tell them I thought it was racially motivated, and so was the other woman, so it didn’t get dealt with as a hate crime when it clearly should have been, and I wonder how I managed to leave out something so basic when no-one had even laid a finger on me. So yeah, I feel a bit less human and have a bit less self-respect when I fail like that, and maybe that motivates me to try and do better, though really, just knowing that it’s the right thing to do should be enough. But I realise a bit of wounded self-esteem on the part of a white woman is nothing compared to the experience of being the direct target of racism day after day.

  2. Interesting questions. I struggle with those myself as I feel like I am luxoriously hiding behind my white skin while I have relatives who cannot hide because they look very American Indian, including my kids that I adopted from a NA tribe different from my own.

  3. [Hi, I forgot to read Racism 101, especially #15. Also, now that I think about it, “whatever” is kind of a dismissive thing to say. And I’ll be sure to try to use the same handle every time I post. Did I get everything?]

  4. I think these things too. I haven’t been in these same situations, but just reading your stories, I was afraid for you.

    The inner turmoil that comes can be exhausting – doing the right thing when the outcome is uncertain [though that is the definition of “doing the right thing”] can be seriously taxing.

    I once said something to that effect, and the white response was pure sarcasm. Crumbling.

  5. I really like this Cost of Racism theme. I think it could and should be a whole book once you’re done. It is profoundly ironic, safe to say (and maybe the ultimate issue) that a majority of white people believe racism is only a problem for people of color. As if racism were a dirty bomb that would magically only attack POC. White people as a group still exhibit the belief that racism is some tricky thing that we have to not snag the trip wire on. I think changing that is one of the most efficient paths toward change.

    Related to this, I’d like to propose another cost, which I think is a child of Parts I & II: Racism (and the oversimplified understanding of what it is) affects white people by denying us *The Ability to Make Art That Actually Moves People*. My definition of art is “expressive discipline”. For me, art is moving when you can tell the artist is grappling with their conflicts, being honest with themselves… allowing that to inform their discipline (and vice versa). Racism and an oversimplified understanding of it (that racism is made by evil racists, which lord no I couldn’t be) causes white people to avoid whole swaths of their inner lives because what they find there will literally be “unthinkable thoughts.” And so when white folks try to get all deep they can end up skirting around all this unnamed and nervous pain, often falling flat.

  6. This one threw a spotllight on my privilege. Thank you.

    I’m really appreciating this series. I’m down to maybe 4 blogs I check/read regularly; it’s posts like these that keep me coming back.

  7. Whoa… I came here from ‘Restructure!’

    I’m just gonna suggest that the whole series (Cost of Racism) be made into a tab up there along with racism 101. Seriously, I didn’t know there was more than one part!

    This is pure awesome sauce!!!1!one

  8. This is really excellent – sorry for zombie-raising an ancient thread, but it was very timely, given the two Black people who have been publicly* reported to have been killed by nervous whites or by law enforcement while seeking help after an accident in the last month or two. I had a similar thought about the costs of rape culture a few weeks ago, while walking home late at night down a dark railway easement through my town. That my tension, which my disability turned into pain, was a direct result of the unreasonable fear that rape culture imposes on women walking alone late at night – that despite the real risk being people I know, I would go home in pain because of the societal narrative that I’m at risk of being jumped from the bushes. Were I reacting to reality, it would be “spending time around people I know” that would make me nervous of rape.

    I hadn’t, however, realized until I read this series of posts, the social costs paid by PoC because of these kinds of stereotyped bullshit. And of course, any level of pain I picked up from that walk home would likely have been greater were I to have my disability while Black. Intersectionality for the loss.

    Thanks for a great post, and some thought-provoking words.

    * I’m not so foolish as to think they’re the only ones, just that for whatever reason, these two stories “made headlines”. I suppose two is better than none, but really it just points out how rare it is that such stories are reported at all, rather than whether it’s likely to happen more often.

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