AKA, “Did you see that?”
EDITORIAL NOTE: I am pleased and proud to introduce my first guest editorialist. Using the nom de plume Super Mrs. C., please meet a retired educator — she says “untired teacher” — who writes with grace, humor and the wisdom of experience. In this essay, Super Mrs. C. describes five small ways white people remind Black and brown people of the color of their skin. If you’re one of those white people who say “we just need to stop talking about race,” perhaps you should read on with a little humility and a willingness to consider that maybe, just maybe, others see things differently than you do. — Matt
White people like to insist that they are not “racist” because they personally do not engage in racist acts. They insist on relegating racism to the past, thus absolving themselves of present responsibility, and they deny their inherent privilege because that would confirm that there is, in fact, a “system” to racism. An important feature of a system is that you don’t think about how it works. You simply live in it.
People of color are subject every day to little disses which try our souls. If you are a white person and participate in any of these, then, yes, you are perpetuating systemic racism despite what you wish to believe. You don’t notice them, but we do. Here are what I call “The Five Daily Disses.”
The Currency Concern
My sister and I were window-shopping (mostly) at an upscale mall when we decided to check out the goods at “The Ostentatious Outerwear Store.” Pre-Pandemic, this store already monitored how many potential customers could enter at a time, and the manufactured line encouraged passers-by to stop and see what the big deal was inside. When our turn came to enter, the security guard gave us a big smile and warned, “Oh, ladies. I hope you have your checkbooks ready!”
Why thank you, white security guard! Instead of readying himself to watch two little black women navigate the store, he took his time to share his concern about the state of our finances. Now wasn’t that special?
We were potential customers, and he was the hired help, so if anyone should have worried about their checkbook, it was him. Since he couldn’t say outright, “You’re black and you can’t afford to be here,” he intimated that we might perish from sticker shock. A white person in a lesser economic position than me felt that he could judge what I could or couldn’t afford. Brown skin must mean we lacked mean green. Don’t make assumptions about my finances because of my skin color. You don’t know me.
The Intimation of Ignorance
I love me some books. I’m an insatiable reader. You know the type. I will read the ingredients on the cereal box, knowing they’re going to be the same today as they were yesterday. If I don’t have something to read, I panic the way a baby panics when it loses its pacifier. I’m a fixture at our local bookstore, so I’m greeted like an old friend. If I don’t shop at my usual haunt, though, my experience goes something like this.
I’m fourth in line. My armload of books bends me double, as if I’m practicing a yoga move. Person One has a paperback. Person Two has a hardcover and a magazine. Person Three has two greeting cards and a cute novelty they picked up while waiting. Person One: The clerk scans the paperback and asks, “Are you a member of our Rewards Program?” “No.” Person Two: The clerk scans book, scans magazine, and asks the same question. “No.” Person Three: “No.” Me, Person Four: I heft my books and stumble to the counter, take out my card, and the clerk starts scanning. They tell me my three-digit total, they get a bag ready, but they neglect to ask “the question.” (Play ominous music here.)
Same cashier, but no question for me. Are they tired? Did they forget the register routine? The clerk is probably not even consciously aware that they didn’t ask. Their ingrained mental computation is that brown skin and love of books don’t add up. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a reader by their color.
I’m in a bookstore. I’m carrying half my weight in worthy tomes. I have a triple-digit bill, yet, I’m the one who couldn’t possibly be a member of a bookstore Rewards Program, so why bother asking? Customers One through Three happen to be white, which is clearly a synonym for “literate.”
At the end of the transaction, I tell the clerk that I’m a member of the Rewards Program. They have to re-enter the transaction, and they’re huffy. What?
The Queue Question
This one’s short and sweet. The next time you’re at a store where there’s a line, and people don’t have to stand six feet apart, pretend you’re a college student conducting a Sociology study. Note who passes in front of whom. When they need to pass through a line, white people will pass behind another white person, but in front of a person of color (or a child.) It’s the superior/inferior thing at play again. Think of how one never turns one’s back on the Queen.
Remember, you’re conducting a study, so you have to repeat this at different times in different places. I already know your findings.
Were I a petty person, I would deliberately stand a bit closer than normal to the person in front of me, thus forcing anyone passing through the line to walk behind me. While they were walking behind me, they might contemplate how different it feels to… but, I’m not petty.
The Absent Apology
This one gets a bit nerdy, so I apologize in advance. Apologies are a very specific kind of verbal performance, and the words you use and how you use them determine whether or not your apology is genuine. You know the rules implicitly. You know when they’re followed and when they’re broken.
You make an apology when you have hurt someone. You acknowledge responsibility for your action. You express regret directly to the person you have hurt, which must be genuine. You ask for forgiveness. You promise that you will never repeat such an action again and offer to make amends. If you skip any of these, then it’s not an apology.
“DID YOU SEE THAT?”
We know intuitively that an apology has a sort of weight which should balance the weight of the harm. When you apologize and ask for forgiveness, you are a petitioner. The other person is your superior, because they can say “yes” or “no.”
Now, when have you ever known a white person willingly give up being “the superior?” “I’ll take ‘NEVER’ for $1,000, Alex.”
A white person will know they’ve offended you, but they would rather eat ground glass than be a petitioner to someone they regard as not their equal. (This is why people so rarely apologize to children.) They can’t be so coarse as to ignore social norms entirely, so they make a sideways apology. They neither acknowledge, nor take responsibility for, their action. They do not ask for forgiveness — they can’t if they haven’t done anything. Perhaps they will express regret, but so indirectly that they are not expressing it to you. They are apologizing to themselves. They both make the request and grant it.
Supply your own offense here, but the non-apology generally follows this model.
WP: “Do you remember last week, when we were talking?”
POC “Yes, I do. There was some heat to that discussion.” (Wondering what’s going to come next.)
WP: “I was in a bad mood that day. I’m usually nicer than that. Don’t you think? Are we ‘good?’”
POC: (To self. “Did you see that? They’re trying to force me to agree that they’re a good person when they’re a pure butthole. Where’s my apology?”)
I see you shaking your head, because you’ve been there. The next time, don’t let them off the hook. Ask them what they’re talking about and wait for an explanation. Take a book and a cold drink to tide you over while you wait.
The Missing “Ma’am,” the Silent “Sir.”
It’s time again to conduct another little Sociology observation. As with all studies, you have to repeat this one in several different places for reliability.
You need a location like a theater, a sports event, or a train, where one person interacts with several people one after the other. Take note. Generally, the transaction will be that the patron hands their ticket to the ticket taker. They scan it, punch it, whatever it, return it to you, and say “Thank you.” Everyone gets a “Thank you.” We are equal in that respect.
But, but, we won’t all get an honorific. The ticket taker will say, “Thank you, ma’am,” or “Thank you, Sir” only to white patrons. Again, they may not be conscious of the difference, but there will be a difference. The unspoken conventions of who deserves more respect and who deserves less are so ingrained that even people of color will neglect a title when addressing other people of color. Do you remember how hard we fought for that courtesy? We know who we are, but it’s in our heads too. Don’t just accept it. Supply your title if someone neglects it.
Why do you Make Everything About “Race?”
Someone out there is asking, “Why do you (people) have to make everything about race? You pay too much attention to stuff like that.” Because I just gave you five demonstrable examples of people being treated differently for no discernible reason other than their skin color. That’s why. We pay attention to stuff like that because it happens. You can believe that you’re “not a racist” all the while engaging in unthinking racism.
Try to notice the daily disses you carry out without thinking about them. Then, monitor yourself until you break that habit. It may take a surprising amount of both time and mental discipline.
If you’re a person of color, pay attention to your own behavior to make sure that you give respect to yourself and other people who deserve it. We, too, have been conditioned to think of ourselves in a certain light, and it may take a surprising amount of time and mental effort not only to think of ourselves as equal, but also to insist on being treated as equals. You are. It’s not about you personally; It’s about long-practiced patterns of interaction that few notice, but which we must call out. Systems don’t change until we change them.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take the time to do some serious thinking about how we treat children. They, too, are victims of daily disses.
Photograph © 2022 Etty Fidele via Unsplash; wayhomestudio via Freepik