Responding to Racism

For context, I’m a white dude, married to a beautiful black woman. You’d know that if you had read my previous posts. But considering the current number of followers I have? Highly unlikely.

Now before I go any further, I’m not gonna digress into the argument about whether brown or black folk can be racists. Why? I already do enough digressing to begin with. That’s kinda my jam. Another reason? I waffle a little bit on whether I’m 💯 certain that I know the answer. For me, clearly I’ve experienced animosity directed at me—by both white and black people—simply because of my skin color. But is that racism or prejudice?

One camp says yes, sticking to a typical dictionary definition of racism: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

While an opposing camp believes…

True, Dickmoji. I thought I wasn’t going down this road either, but here we are. I’ll get back on track shortly, if you can kindly stop with the interruptions.

As I was saying, the alternative argument to the standard dictionary definition is one primarily based on institutional racism, factoring in a person’s power to promote their racist beliefs.

This viewpoint is promoted by a leading black character in the movie “Dear White People” when he argues that “Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”

After a bit of flip-flopping, which side do I stand on this debate? A few years ago, I would’ve said brown or black people could definitely be racist. But recently, my daughter—who happens to be black—posited the alternative perspective that since they don’t have societal power, blacks cannot be racist. Although I initially argued otherwise and thought it a bit of semantics, I’ll side with her position. Why? It’s an unfortunate fact that blacks are much more educated on this issue, experiencing racism on a daily and systemic basis; for that reason, I’ll side with the subject matter experts.

Aaaanyway, I detoured simply for clarification of my choose of words throughout this blog. Despite my title, I’ll refer to the hate-filled woman down the street as prejudiced, not racist.

Yes, obviously she’s brown…Oops🤦‍♂️, my bad. I guess in my “detour” I lost track of the fact that I hadn’t even discussed this witch. Sorry, Dear Reader. And Dickmoji? You don’t deserve an apology. If you weren’t such a douche, perhaps. But since you are? Forget about it.

For context, I live in a very diverse neighborhood. It’s considered a low income area, in a small Pennsylvania city. But it’s pretty cool; most neighbors are great, except for the racist white dude next door and the brown skinned hag down the street. The prejudiced brown skinned hag down the street. And…

Yeah, I was just about to get there, Dickmoji. It’s not a perfect place, certainly. Recently there were two murders up the street and on a separate occasion, a guy tried to win an argument by using a drill on someone’s head at the local barbershop. Then there was a drive by shooting that broke windows directly opposite our house and two other shootings that damaged our neighbors’ homes. Less dramatic, but equally concerning, is the horrible peer influences on our children with the threat of guns, knives, and sexual assault, all requiring police investigations (literally at our house, on five separate occasions). And on and on it goes.

As described, it wouldn’t seem that appealing. But the place does have its charm. Like the sweet neighbor that carpools our child to football. Or the other neighbor, whose children we’ve coached in soccer for several years; the kids have become quite close, with each other, and with us, brightening our days with hugs each time we see them. There’s the kind and generous woman that strolls past and stops to give our dog treats and the next door neighbor who routinely helps us out by watching our dog when we’re away. And the list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the wise and caring convenience store owner that we’ve grown to think not only as a friend, but also as source of wisdom and joy.

Like most geographical areas, ours has its ups and downs. For now, let’s focus on a few of the downs, as I think it’s instructive in improving how we respond to these life situations.

Take for instance when we were driving in my Jeep, on the way to a stroll in the woods. Besides my wife, we had our two kids in the back and our son’s best friend. Driving, I was the only white person in the vehicle. On most days, I wouldn’t even think about this, as I’m always the only white person in the Jeep and in our household, for that matter. It’s just…normal life. But on this day, stopped out a traffic light, we heard the chants of protest in the air.

Looking over at handful of people, I couldn’t make out what they were saying, or what they were protesting. But it did have the feel of racism. And their chants did feel as if they were directed towards us. To confuse matters, I thought I saw a black dude amongst the protesters, which my mind couldn’t process; despite the hatred I felt, it didn’t seem likely that a black man would be standing alongside potential white supremacists.

When the light turned green I pulled away from the intersection and asked my wife what it was all about. First, she clarified that there was not a black person in the mix; they were all white, dressed in black clothes. Second, they were directing their hatred towards us, chanting, “You are anti-white. You are anti-white. You are anti-white.” Clearly, racial harassment, no? For more about this incident, check out my previous post and prepare to be enthralled.

A few weeks after that incident, on The Fourth of July, I had a verbal altercation with this nasty, prejudiced old lady down the street. Several times a week during a bike ride with my dog, I pass by her house. When I do, she mumbles loudly. Although I never understand her incoherence, just like the chanting idiots on the street corner, it always feels directed my way. But on this day? She was a bit louder and substantially more direct:

“This day isn’t about us. This is your day. White people’s day. You enslaved our people. July 4th is about you, not us.”

I stopped my bike and turned around.

“What are you talking about,” I asked, perplexed.

Although I can’t remember the exact phrasing, the basic gist was that all white people were the spawn of the devil, evil and unredeemable.

I could’ve just let it go. Certainly, that was an option. But in that moment, sensing the absolute loathing directed my way. I responded.

“What the fuck are talking about? I had nothing to do with slavery. I…”

And on it went, back and forth, neither of our minds changing. What started out as a peaceful bike ride, boosting the mood of my day, culminated with me pissed off, replaying the conversation in my mind. I refused to just…let it go.

And the next day and the day after that? The same kinda verbal altercation, but in this case, it was instigated by me. I deliberately muttered to her as I passed on by. And in one instance I said to her,—loudly and directly—“May the Lord forgive your hatred.” I said it not from a place of actually wanting forgiveness, but of wanting to get a rise out of her, knowing her opinions were based on some twisted religious perspective. After I said it, I continued on my bike ride, not giving her the satisfaction of a reply.

Her response came the next day as my wife and kids were in our Jeep, preparing to go to the park. Walking angrily towards us was the witch. Twenty feet away, still walking, her verbal nonsense began. Again, I don’t remember the exact words, but the message was clear: I was demonic, like all white people and that god would strike me dead.

Of course I replied back, with almost-equal venom. My son traded some verbal barbs as well, while my daughter remained silent, in fear of the nasty woman yelling at us. My wife was much more measured, calmly noting that God was loving and forgives our sins. The confrontation only lasted a few minutes, but the after-effects remained. With me, in the form of anger. And with our kids, in the form of fear. My wife? Not much residual effects at all, truthfully; she’s a stoic with an admirable ability to just let things roll off her back. We would all be better served if we were a little more like her.

Reflecting on things a few days later, I kinda felt culpable in the escalation of events. I felt responsible for the fear my kids now felt each time we passed her house. What the fuck was the point of my “may god forgive your hatred” comment, anyway? Was it simply to make myself feel good? To “win”? Is that what this life is about? I don’t think so. I think we can be better than that.

The same goes true with my tendency to respond to road rage, or other confrontations. I engage, instead of just letting it float on by, like a cloud.

The question is why. Why do I tend to escalate confrontations? Why do any of us? Although I can’t answer your question, I’m starting to answer mine. At least, partly. And for me, it goes back to my childhood.

Through therapy, I’ve discovered my motivation to engage in conflict is about needing to protect myself. Because as a child, in an abusive environment, I couldn’t. I felt powerless. But counterintuitively,—at least, for me—I’m giving away some of my energy—or power—to the person I’m arguing with. Odder still is that when I give away some of my power by participating in altercations, I’m also bringing myself closer to the state of being powerless, the very thing that triggers my desire to engage in conflict in the first. It’s like a fucking self-perpetuating loop. The concept is sorta esoteric and it’s a struggle to get my head around. But at the same time, it resonates.

Your reasons might not be the same as mine, but perhaps my prophetic wife’s recommended solution for avoiding altercations might be universal: respond from a place of empathy. The prejudiced woman down the street? She has her own demons and it’s not my battle to fight. And what must she have gone through in life to become as bitter as she is? With that perspective, allowing her hate-filled mutterings to roll off my back is so much easier and life is substantially more peaceful and healthy, for all parties.

Flipping the switch and changing your mindset isn’t effortless. We’re not always going to get it right. But it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being better versions of ourselves compared to yesterday.

Let the work begin.

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