Last week I went to the playground with my family. We were there for my oldest son’s occupational therapy session. The therapist is a woman about my age and she recently moved out of the neighborhood to live in another part of the city. It was a beautiful day and we basically had the playground to ourselves. Micah ran around on the playground equipment and swung on the swings. During our time there a couple of kids came in and also ran around the playground for a few minutes before leaving again. Because we had the place to ourselves when we came in we kind of had our belongings scattered throughout the entrance of the place. My youngest son Ezra was sitting quietly in his stroller in one area and the therapist’s bag and purse were about 20 feet away from the stroller. After awhile another kid came to play at the playground. He looked to be about eight or so. He was having a hard time opening the gate to the playground. (In his defense, it was a bit tricky. I had a hard time myself.) When the the therapist noticed the boy trying to open the gate she leaned over to me and said, “I’m going to go grab my bag.” I thought as she was over there she would help the boy open the gate. But she just grabbed her bag, and put it over with the stroller, closer to where we were. Then she just kind of stood there, watching the boy struggle to open the gate. Eventually she said told him how to get the lock to open so he could swing open the gate.
I was kind of shocked by her actions. She hadn’t reacted this way to the two other children that came in earlier. She didn’t feel the need to go move her bag when they came in. It was only when this boy was attempting to come in, and then she seemed reluctant to even help him.
The difference was that the boy was black, while the two other kids were white.
I’m sure the therapist wouldn’t perceive herself as being racist. But her actions told a different story.
I was once challenged by a peer who said that we all participate in racism in one way or another. Sometimes it’s active, and sometimes it’s passive. Sometimes it’s individual, and sometimes its systemic. Sometimes its intentional, and sometimes it’s just ignorance. Sometimes it’s blatant bigotry, and other times it’s nuanced micro-aggressions.
Since that challenge I have tried to become aware of the actions, statements, jokes, body language, facial expressions, thoughts, and other blind spots which could be considered racist or prejudiced. And boy…there’s a lot. It’s quite sobering.
Saying you’re not a racist falls in the same category as asking a woman if she’s pregnant — just don’t do it. Ever. It’s just not a good idea.
Our country has a very complex racialized society. Even though much has been done in our country to eliminate the obvious areas of racism and inequality, systemic and institutional racism still remains strong and is often unchallenged by those with the power to change it. But the unchecked racism doesn’t stop there. While many would deem in very inappropriate to use racist language or to use racial stereotypes, in our world of colorblindness racism is allowed to flourish under the radar.
Many white people assume that colorblindness, the desire not to make any assumptions based upon the color of someone else’s skin, is a good thing. But blindness is generally not a good thing, and neither is colorblindness. Yes, we shouldn’t judge people based upon their skin color, but that doesn’t mean that our skin doesn’t say something significant about who we are. Plus, to say that we don’t make assumptions based upon skin color is just not true. We all make assumptions based upon people’s appearances, including skin their skin color – right or wrong, willingly or not.
The goal is not to try and ignore the assumptions we make or to try to be blind to the skin color of those around us. Instead, let’s become better aware of the assumptions that we make about others. Let’s be better at listening to the stories of those who do not look like us, and learn how their skin color does affect their daily lives and how it shapes their identities. The better we understand people not like ourselves, the less likely we will be to make assumptions based upon appearance.