Thursday, July 31, 2014

More on Racism in America

Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States, recently commented that “some” amount of the criticism of the president is due to racism – the fact that he’s black. Holder’s comments are addressed in an earlier post. What I want to do here is share with my white readers where I think Holder was coming from based on my observations and conversations with African-American friends and co-workers over the years.

White people are generally oblivious to subtle signs of prejudice around them because we aren’t on the receiving end of these actions. So we may think there’s very little racism in this country, but black people see signs of it all the time. I’ve heard enough stories that I tend to believe they’re true and not imagined. I’ve witnessed a couple of these myself.

Under the surface most black people are angry. When the subject of their history comes up (slavery in particular), that anger can rise to the surface. Think of some of the public statements Harry Belafonte has made, for example. He is one angry man!

Black people believe their historical mistreatment is worse by far than what other groups have endured, such as American Indians, Irish immigrants, Jews, and other immigrant groups. Of course no other group has been enslaved and mistreated so much.

With these points in mind, you might now be able to see where Eric Holder was coming from when he made his controversial statement. I still believe he could have handled it better, but at least we now have some understanding of his frame of mind.

I recommend to white people that you keep these points in mind when interacting with African-American friends and co-workers. You might be thinking they’re too sensitive, or they should move on and not dwell on their mistreatment. But I ask that you be sensitive to their history and the day-to-day signs of prejudice that they observe that we typically don’t see.

Two Examples

I had gone to the conference office (like a diocesan office) where the bishop’s office is. This office was in a section of a large church complex. As I was waiting for my meeting to start, I was sitting in the lunch room reading the paper. The bishop, who was African-American, walked by, spotted me, and came into the lunch room to say hello. As we were talking, a middle-aged white guy poked his head into the lunch room and asked nobody in particular which way to the nursery school (which was housed in the complex).

The bishop, a tall, distinguished-looking man, wearing clerical garb (his collar), told him it was down the hall and to the right. The guy then looked at me and asked the same question! I gave the exact same answer as the bishop. The guy thanked me and then proceeded down the hall. The bishop and I just looked at each other.

Another time, my wife and I flew over to England to do some touring, and we arrived at our B&B mid-afternoon. We were hoping our room was ready so we could take a nap before dinner to help us deal with jet lag. So I pulled the car into a parking space by the house, and we went up to the door and rang the bell.

After a little bit, the door opened and a black woman appeared. I was slightly surprised, and what do you think I thought she was? You guessed it. The maid, of course! Fortunately, rather than asking for the owner, I asked if our room was ready. By now you must have guessed that this woman was the co-owner with her husband and a gourmet cook. I avoided what could have been an embarrassing situation, addressing her as the maid (although I’m sure it happens often).

But this goes to show how conditioned we are. A black woman opens the door, and we think she’s the maid. We see black kids playing in a neighborhood and we think we are in a less desirable part of town even though the houses are well-kept. So we have to be sensitive ourselves and not let stereotypes dictate how we think or view things.

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