Saturday, June 20, 2015

Believing Kenny: Listening to African-Americans about Racism

In the few days since the horrific murders at a black church in Charleston, one of the many things that's disturbed me is the initial reluctance of some white people to believe the attack could have been motivated by racial hatred. This was especially true among certain conservatives--to a degree that was shocking to me. Fox News jumped to the conclusion that the attack was an attack on Christianity, not black people, and called it "extraordinary" that it was being investigated as a hate crime. The governor of South Carolina and certain Republican presidential candidates were also weirdly reluctant to say what the attack obviously was: a hate crime against African-Americans.

I don't exactly understand why they wanted to deny that racism was to blame. I'm truly puzzled by the motives there. What I can understand, though, is why white people might not realize the full extent of racist aggression that African-Americans face in their daily lives. We don't realize it, because it doesn't happen to us. Whatever the extent of white-on-black racial aggression, if you're a non-racist white person with non-racist friends, you're not going to see much of it firsthand. If you hardly ever see it happen, it's easy to assume it hardly ever happens. It's easy, but it's wrong.

I'm convinced it's quite common for blacks to experience racism from whites. In fact, I believe it happens to many of them every day. I came to this conclusion years ago, after another racially-charged incident that shook up the whole country. I was a student at a small liberal arts college in Arkansas when the Rodney King beating and trial happened. The afternoon the news broke that the police had been acquitted, an African-American student invited everybody on campus to gather in front of the library and discuss what had happened.

A few dozen people showed up, and what was said doesn't concern us here, except for one brief exchange I'll never forget. A white student asked this question to all the African-Americans present: "Here's what I want to know: How often do you actually experience racism in your daily life?" Then a guy I knew named Kenny stood up and spoke for the first time.

He said, "Every day, man. Every single day."

Now, here's the thing about Kenny: When he said it, I believed it. I admit that if some of the other African-American students had said it, I wouldn't have. Some of them, in my opinion, had too much of a chip on their shoulder about race. I thought they might see racist slights when none were intended. But not Kenny. He was one one of the friendliest people I've ever met--he seemed to be friends with everybody, black and white, and I had never heard him say a negative word about anyone or anything. So when Kenny said it happened to him every day, I believed it. I still do.

After he said it, I started thinking about other times I had realized that how people treat me isn't necessarily how they treat everybody. I had noticed it before; not about race, but social class and reputation. I grew up in a small town in the Ozarks where almost everybody was white. My parents were very respectable--a veterinarian and a teacher--and I didn't get in much trouble, so the adults around town were really nice to me. But I had friends who did get in trouble occasionally, and who didn't come from such respectable families, and I started noticing that some of the other respectable adults (not my parents) weren't so nice to them. Around them, they turned into different people. Their smiles vanished. Their eyes hardened. That's when I realized that people who seemed perfectly friendly to me can turn nasty to others.

Another thing I already knew, of course, is that some people are racist. You don't hear nearly as much racist talk in the Ozarks as you hear in the deep south (partly because there are hardly any black people there) but you still hear plenty of it--or at least you did a couple decades ago. Some people casually threw the n-word around, and there were always a handful of people who seem to trace every problem in the country back to black people...even though they hardly ever encountered one.

I actually don't remember ever seeing a white person say something racist to a black person in my home town, but that means next to nothing, because as I said, hardly any black people lived there. I don't know how much racism I would have seen if I had grown up in a more diverse town. I suspect it would be much more, but I also suspect it would be much less than what was actually happening, and I wasn't seeing.

Anyway, after hearing what Kenny said, and thinking about how many racists I knew, and how people could be nice to me and nasty to others, I started thinking about how those racists might act when they encountered a black person, and thought nobody else was watching. Weighing up all these things, I decided that Kenny was surely right--black people must experience a lot of racism that most white people never even notice (unless they're the ones doing it.) We don't notice it because it happens when we aren't watching, and it's not happening to us.

People are sneaky, and they can be surprisingly nasty when they think nobody is watching. I know that's true, because I've heard the stories from people I trust. However, once again, it's not usually about racism. It's about sexism. But don't worry! I'm not about to go off on a different tangent--one hot-button issue per post is plenty. I just think the sexism I do hear about is analogous to the racism I don't hear about. I have a lot of female friends, and I've been stunned my whole adult life by stories they tell me about what some guys do when they think nobody else will see: the catcalls, the elevator eyes, the flat-out sexual propositions. I think it's a similar situation as with Kenny--I don't see it happening, and I wouldn't even believe it if I wasn't hearing it from someone I trust.

But I do believe it, because I do trust them. Yes, some guys really do say those things. And if that's true, and it's also true that some people are racist, then it's not a stretch to think African-Americans of both sexes are in a similar situation to women: they see a lot of nastiness that I'm completely unaware of. It doesn't happen to me, and it doesn't usually happen around me. But it does happen. When Kenny says it happens every day, I believe him, and I think other white Americans should believe him too.

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