I’d like to say I don’t see race or color or ethnicity and so on, but of course I do. We all do, once we’re alerted to it. Racism exists in our society, and in fact I’ve been an instrument of racism myself.
At my first job, when I was about seventeen, a Black man came into the shop where I worked. He was looking for an apartment to rent (there were rental apartments above the shop).
He asked me to check on a listing he’d seen. I left the counter and asked the boss in back. The boss peeked out and saw who it was — that is, the color he was — and told me to tell him the apartment had been rented. I did so, and the Black guy looked at me and said, “I just called a few minutes ago and was told you had an apartment.”
I felt ashamed and used; the boss later told me he’d rented apartments to “them” before and had had trouble. The Black guy I’d talked to was the epitome of class; he just shook his head at me and walked out. I think he understood, from my apology (“Sorry — my boss told me it’s been rented”), that I was merely a messenger boy, an instrument of another person’s racism.
The shock of being told I couldn’t sit next to another student because of the color of my skin stayed with me. I gained a little empathy that day.
Three other small episodes from my high school years.
I recall a race riot in my high school (there were about 6000 students at my school), and I remember one of my white friends told me he’d talked to one of his Black friends who’d said, “I’m not your friend today,” during the riot.
Second, I recall a friend (white) who got into a fight with a Black kid in school, after which he told me one of the white teachers had complimented him. (Imagine a teacher complimenting a student for fighting simply because the student had punched a Black kid.)
Finally, I remember taking a school bus that I didn’t normally take. I tried to sit next to a Black kid and he told me I couldn’t sit there. This was repeated again until a Black girl told me to come sit next to her.
The shock of being told I couldn’t sit next to another student because of the color of my skin stayed with me. I have no resentment against the kids who said it; indeed, it made me realize, in a small way, the prejudice these kids faced every day from white America.
I gained a little empathy that day.
All this is on my mind due to this remarkable interview between Daryl Davis and Jimmy Dore, which is frank and moving in its discussion of racism and some of the ways we can fight against it and overcome it in America.
I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.