“They say times have changed, and they have,” a well-dressed plump woman in her fifties told me. “But some things are still the same.” I listened attentively as I pushed the cart out to her car, and she continued talking with ease, perhaps because she was a regular customer of mine.
She explained that she was shopping in produce and thought the cherries looked a bit old, so she asked Vinny, who was working nearby, if there were any newer ones in the back. He said no, but a short time later a second customer asked him the same question, and he said yes, and dutifully went to the back to retrieve them. The second customer was white. Vinny was white. My customer was black.
Curious after her explanation, I asked Vinny what the deal was. Very thin and not exactly attractive, Vinny adjusted his glasses 20 years out of style. “I know, she said something to me. I thought we had no cherries in the back when she asked. Then next time I was back there, I see that we did have more. What am I supposed to do, lie to the next customer because she happened to be white?”
But in the world of race relations, reality is not what counts; perception is. In the entirely apolitical context of a grocery store, I was privy to a small but illuminating exchange between a white man and a black woman in America. Charges of blatant Jim Crow-style racism are less common today, in favor of a new, covert racism supposedly permeating society. Not fire hoses, police dogs and shouts of racial epithets, but rudeness, racist assumptions and an unwillingness to help.
The argument is usually that a black person just “knows” when someone is racist. As heirs of the civil rights movement, they have a heightened sense of awareness when someone is giving them trouble, or when things mysteriously don’t work out.
At times, I am sure the black person is right. Racism does still exist in certain places and with certain people. And to the black person, to ignore the possibility of racism probably gives the feeling of reverting to the past, of accepting the nickname “boy” and sitting at the back of the bus.
Yet if I say that too many are too ready to see racism in people’s actions, I am usually informed that I am white, not black, and I don’t know what it’s like. Indeed, this is true: I am white.
But the flip side to that coin is that black people don’t know what it’s like to be white. As a white man, I should have free access to the “white mentality” that is so subtly at work in America.
In a room with a few white guys, I should hear the racist jokes. When I describe to my white manager who it was who turned in a job application five minutes ago, I should consider it relevant with a wink and a nod that he was black. When someone in my family applies for a home loan, I should feel relief that they too are white, and so they will be better off than the black family next in line.
But none of these things happen. None of these things are commonly understood by any white people I’ve ever known. If white people are racist, they do an amazingly good job of keeping it secret from me. But of course, I’m white like they are, so why should they have to?
Why is that when the hotel clerk or the shoe salesman is rude to a white man, it’s bad customer service, but when he’s rude to a black man, it’s automatically racism? White people also suffer from inexplicably bad-mannered strangers.
In today’s America, racism is a very serious charge. Unless someone’s motivations are clear, the r-word should be used sparingly. Barack Obama’s famous speech on race simultaneously showed progress towards realizing the pitfalls of seeing endless racism, but it also essentially fell into the same victim mentality, that the white man is secretly keeping the black man down.
But I forget myself. I’m white. How would I know anything about racism?
Learn more about the white way of thinking by e-mailing ROB OLSON at firstname.lastname@example.org.