Reading this piece on racial micro-aggression reminded me of an incident I’d long forgotten. I decided to recall it here in case it helps anyone else.
I was about twenty years old and working in a health food store. My co-worker was a man, also White, of a similar age.
I don’t remember the details of what happened, but somehow we ended up arguing with a Black woman who was shopping in the store. It was the sort of argument we had on a daily basis, perhaps about our returns policy. In any case, the woman told us that we were being racist towards her and we reacted defensively, horrified, saying no of course we’re not racist and we would say the same thing to anyone.
The woman left, angry and upset, and my colleague and I, shocked and hurt, turned to each other and proceeded to repair our damaged egos. Experiencing ourselves as non-racists, we blamed the woman for mistaking our actions.
“It’s ridiculous to accuse a jazz musician [him] and a capoeirista [me] of being racist!” he said
I now see that it was us being ridiculous. We imagined that our awareness of historical racism and slavery, and our interest and participation in cultural forms that grew from and formed part of of Black resistance and rights movements conferred on us a halo of non-racist identity, and that therefore we couldn’t possibly have behaved in a racist way (nb my colleague’s band were all White, as were my capoeira groups). We were upset that we had upset the woman, but we did nothing to interrogate our actions. We didn’t think about how she experienced the exchange, we just washed off our little sting of White guilt with the holy water of White privilege; the privilege to impose our narrative, recentre ourselves and define our identities.
I now see that however our actions were motivated, if we were truly anti-racist, as we wanted to believe, we would have accepted her interpretation and examined our actions from her viewpoint. If we had really been fighting inequality and white supremacy, we would have sought to redress the situation instead of licking our wounds. We might have been aware of overt racism, but we weren’t aware of our Whiteness.
This is why I believe there’s no such thing as a non-racist. If you’re not aware of your privilege, you’re complicit in the structure that empowers and centres you. Your identity means nothing: you fight or perpetuate inequality through what you do.