“What?” she asked, glancing over at the T.V.
She was in the kitchen tinkering with something, counting on me to alert her if anything good came on. We’d already rewound to watch the Stephen Colbert ad for Wonderful Pistachios where he cracked his head open, revealing a smaller pistachio colored Colbert face. Hilarious.
In the Coca-Cola commercial, America the Beautiful was sung in various languages while images of people of different ethnicities played across the screen.
“That one is going to get all the racists fired up. I can hear it now.”
The tweets started firing immediately. Some of them began with, “I’m not a racist, but…”
Are people really still using that line, I thought. Still believing it? Apparently, yes. (I feel compelled, as a side note, to set the record straight: if you start a sentence with those words, you are most definitely, without a doubt, going to end the sentence with words that are incredibly and terribly racist. Guaranteed. And beyond saying something racist, in all likelihood, you are going to reveal that you are a racist.)
I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised. In today’s world, racism has been banished from its place of honor at the table, but there's no doubt that it’s still with us in the dining room. Yeah, yeah, I know, we’ve come a long way, sure. We no longer have segregated seating or segregated water fountains (hooray for us). We have a black president (woo-hoo), but let’s not pretend that we live in some sort of fair-minded, colorblind society.
Even sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools remain largely segregated and I have yet to meet one African American male who has not gone through the experience of being pulled over while driving, simply because of the color of his skin. Racism has been written out of many of our laws, but it remains. It might not be at the table, but it still sits underneath like some beloved pet, living off whatever scraps we are willing to throw its way. And there are plenty of scraps.
I grew up surrounded by racist people. On one side of my family I had uncles who uttered the “N” word without a second thought and a set of grandparents who talked about “the coloreds.” The other side was a more educated bunch, many of whom wouldn’t dare utter such phrases, for fear of sounding racist, but many of them probably would’ve considered moving out of the neighborhood if a black family moved in next door.
My parents tempered all of that, teaching me as best they could that people were people, regardless of what color their skin was, but some of the other stuff seeped in. As a child I can remember getting lost in the grocery store. When a woman tried to assist me, I ran from her because she was black. All the stories I’d heard about black people doing “bad things,” had an impact on the way I perceived them. It didn’t help much that I grew up in a town and attended schools that were starkly lacking in diversity.
As I got older, I found myself arguing with my uncles and aunts during holiday dinners until I became too flustered and upset to continue. Eventually, I realized that these arguments were an exercise in futility, so I started to keep my mouth shut. I’d roll my eyes when they started their nonsense. Sometimes, I left the room. I wasn’t going to change their minds, and I was tired of trying. I figured that if they wanted to be ignorant, racist, asses, well they could go right ahead.
As I got even older, I became even more aware of racism, as it existed both in others and in myself. Despite my best efforts, part of what had been spewed around me for my entire childhood found a place to reside inside of me. I didn’t want it, but it was there--an unwanted parasite that had latched on, only showing its menacing presence on rare occasions like when I found myself crossing the street to avoid an approaching black man. Most of the time, however, I was aware enough to tamp it down, to tell it no, to be the one in charge of it rather than the other way around.
Instead of arguing, I'd warn friends and girlfriends before I brought them into a situation where they might encounter my extended family.
“Uh, my aunts and uncles are sort of racist. I’m sure they’ll say something offensive at some point, so, sorry.”
It took the better part of my twenties to realize that those racist, asses also had redeeming traits. One of my uncles, for example, adopted his grandson because both parents were drug addicts, incapable of taking care of their son. All these years later, he and his wife are pushing seventy and they have a teenager living under their roof.
When I got married, I inherited a new set of racist relatives. Not many, just a few, but enough to cause my blood pressure to rise. At a recent family gathering, the talk turned to “all the young, black men who walk around the mall during the day.” According to some of the in-laws, the mall was full of them. Before I knew it, questions were being raised about why none of those young black men were at work. Someone offered that they were stealing things from stores and then reselling them. This person had this information on good authority because a coworker had been approached by one of these men, and he had tried to sell the coworker a belt.
As I sat at the kitchen table listening, I felt the way that I always have: angry and helpless. What could I say? What could I do? Arguing with your own family was one thing, but arguing with in-laws was another thing entirely. It could get sticky. Like, restaurant dessert menu sticky. Like, movie theater floor sticky. The kind of sticky that might never get unstuck. The fallout could affect not only my relationship with them, but also my relationship with my wife.
I knew all of this, but I just couldn’t take it.
“Right,” I burst out, my voice swimming with sarcasm, “every young, black man who goes to the mall during the day is definitely up to no good! C’mon!"
I know, there were a million things that I could have said that would’ve been more intelligent, more effective, more anything, but my emotions got the best of me, as they tend to do in these situations. At least, I figured, I’d finally broken my silence.
My wife shot me an “it’s not worth it” look. I looked back. This was dangerous territory, we both knew.
“I’ll stop being a racist when the prisons are no longer full of blacks,” one of them crowed.
I could have pointed out that hmmm, isn’t this odd, the fact that although blacks make up only 12.6 percent of the general population, they make up 40 percent of the inmate population? Or I could have informed him that while whites and blacks use drugs at comparable rates, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for a drug offense. But oh yes, let’s continue on believing that the color of a person’s skin is the cause for these statistics, because clearly, it couldn’t possibly be the fact that our country is racist. Clearly, the logical, rational, reasonable answer is that black skin makes people bad. (FYI: If there were a sarcasm font, I’d use it here).
But I said nothing.
Which brings us back to the Super Bowl ad and the stream of racist tweets that followed. I’m not going to bother quoting them here. They aren’t hard to find. If you want to look them up, you can. I did.
And you know what I thought when I read them all? That it was time for me to stop being quiet. If my uncles and aunts and in-laws and hundreds or thousands of people on Twitter could feel at ease spouting off any and all of their racist sentiments, I couldn’t stop them, but I could speak up.
I’m tired of listening to a bunch of ignorant asses who don’t seem to think that they should feel ashamed of their racism, who seem to be proud of their points of view.
So from now on, I’m going to try my damndest to call it out when I see it. I’m going to try to find my voice, even if only to say, “Your remarks are incredibly racist.” I’m going to do this because, even if I’m unable to change anyone’s mind, I refuse to be a silent partner. I’ve got a stake in this country, this society, this world, and I want it to be a better place.