I went to high school in a very white suburb outside of a medium-sized American city. I’ve stayed in touch with a few friends from those days, including a woman I’ll call Susie. She currently lives alone in a house in that city's “inner city.” Susie’s move there about six years ago was a reversal of “white flight,” which initially brought both of our families from somewhere in the city out to the suburbs.
That city is a Midwestern one, and so it’s very segregated. Susie doesn’t live in the “black” part of town, which the people I know call “the ghetto.” She lives in a “mixed” neighborhood, with a population that she says is comprised in more or less equal parts of Latinos, African Americans, and whites.
Susie lives there alone, in a house that she’s fixed up a lot, including an elaborate rock garden in a tiny, high-fenced backyard. Her backyard lawn is so small that she cuts it with a pair of scissors.
I’ve asked Susie several times if she feels safe living in that part of town, and she always laughs.
“Of course! It’s a great neighborhood. A little noisy sometimes, but that’s okay. I love being able to walk to everything.”
Recently, I ran into a guy both Susie and I knew in high school, Bill. When I told him the names of the two streets that form the intersection where Susie’s corner house is, a certain look appeared on Bill’s face.
“Really? Is she okay there? Does she feel safe?”
When I assured him that she did, he asked if she’d been robbed. Robbed “yet,” is what he said.
“No. Not that I’ve heard of.”
“Hmm. Doesn’t seem safe.”
As we went on to talk of other things, I wondered about that expression that appeared on Bill’s face. I also wondered if we’d both be less concerned for her “safety” if she were a man instead of a woman. Was our concern sexist?
But now I wonder, was our concern even real? Or were we instead talking about that, but feeling something else?
What Bill’s face had registered when he asked if Susie felt “safe” in that neighborhood wasn’t a look of alarm, or concern. It was actually a look of disdain. Almost disgust.
Disgust is a feeling, really. As people speak, they sometimes don’t spell out what they’re feeling. But they often do indicate that in other ways. And again, what Bill said he felt—concern—wasn’t what his face said he felt. That was something much closer to disgust.
Bill’s reaction to the largely non-white area that Susie lives in reminds me of reactions to such places expressed by Kyle, another friend of mine (these aren’t real names, by the way). I met Kyle in college, but he dropped out before I graduated. Kyle wound up working as a UPS driver in the same city that Susie lives in, a job that takes him to businesses and residences all over the city.
I realize now that Kyle has a similar way of talking about mixed and largely non-white areas of the city. He hasn’t been all that worried about his safety—in six years, he’s never felt threatened or endangered. Rather, he expresses a kind of disdain for those areas, and for the people in them, when he talks about working in them. His disgust is a little more open than Bill’s was.
“They don’t take care of their own neighborhoods,” he sometimes says, curling his lips, and looking like he wants to spit. “They throw trash everywhere! Right out their car windows, I’ve seen that happen so many times. McDonald’s bags, paper coffee cups, you name it. And you should see the inside of some of their apartments! Not that I ever actually step inside. I’m glad I don’t have to do that—I wouldn’t want to do that.”
I’ve heard other white people talk about non-white places and gatherings this way. They don’t SAY that they feel sort of disgusted; they say something else. But I can often see that other feeling—disdain. Disgust. A disgust for something that they're projecting onto other people from somewhere inside themselves.
This common white reaction was recently clarified for me as a kind of unspoken (and even unthought) feeling by Kristen Myers’ book, Racetalk: Racism Hiding in Plain Sight. Working at various times with a total of sixty-three undergraduate student researchers, Myers compiled over six hundred examples of “racetalk,” which she defines as spoken language that contains “the vocabulary and conceptual frameworks that we use to denigrate different races and ethnicities in our everyday lives.”
Myers’ larger point is that instances of such talk are not mere acts of individual racism; rather, they help form a larger societal network or structure. The racism expressed in "racetalk" consists of feelings, thought, and language that help to maintain both divisive boundaries between groups of people, and the various institutions that oppress non-white people.
In a section of her book called “Pollution,” Myers provides numerous examples, gathered by her small army of student researchers, of language that indicates “how people believed that the contaminating effect of ‘otherness’ was contagious, and [how] they avoided being associated with it.”
Contamination. That’s another thing about Susie, I think, that seemed wrong to my friend Bill. He may not have been thinking this, exactly, but I think some part of him found it almost bizarre that she would want to get that close to the people in that neighborhood. Why, he probably wondered, or maybe felt at some level, would she want to contaminate herself like that?
Some examples from the field notes of Myers’ team help to spell out how common this feeling is—how an association between non-white people and “pollution” underlies a lot of what white people say about spaces that have a lot of non-white people:
My friend Joey’s (white) father said, “I used to work in a job for minimum wage in a grain plant. All these black people started taking the jobs. Since then, the place has gone to shit.”
At a bar with a bunch of white friends, one of them asked if it would be OK to go to another bar. She explained that it was not as classy anymore because black people go there now.
The Mexicans in my town are like flies on horse shit. There are 70 to one house. That’s the only way they can live.
My (dorm) roommate and I frequently have our door open. One time when an Indian passed by she said, “Why does he always look in here?” She doesn’t have that problem normally when other people pass by.
Marilyn (white) said that she would not register for a certain class because it had “a lot of stupid Mexicans in it.”
Now, Susie, Bill, Kyle and I grew up in a Midwestern white suburb. That means that our talk didn’t indicate this overtly the connection we felt between non-white people and pollution. But we did feel it, and I could still see it on Bill’s face when he talked about Susie’s “safety,” and I can still hear it in Kyle’s descriptions of “those people.” I also plan to call Susie sometime soon and congratulate her for getting over such feelings, and to ask her how she did it.
Kristen Myers explains that these feelings have a history. “White” and “black,” for instance, have long been matched up in Western society with “good” and “evil”: “In contrast with the positive concepts associated with whiteness, highly negative concepts are associated with blackness, such as dirty, uncivilized, savage, evil, and ugly.” Another ongoing result is that even many people of color feel and express disdain for darker skin.
So Myers’ work clarifies for me something that lurks within the depths of the general white mindset. As I’ve written before, most white people are quite all right with all-white spaces (even though they often take umbrage when non-white people sometimes want to be in other sorts of non-white spaces, such as meetings, or parties, or beauty contests, or organizations). I now see that one reason all-white spaces are quite all right for most white people is because in a way, such spaces feel clean.
Here’s one more example. As the “owner” of this blog, I can see what path readers took to reach it. If they use Google or another search engine, I can also see what search terms brought them to this blog. Just today, someone arrived here by entering this phrase into Google: “why do white people say dirty mexican”?
Basically, this post is my effort to answer that same question. And many others that are just like it. With the help of Kristen Myers, I can answer that white people say things like that because of a feeling they have. This feeling is a common, subdued revulsion at the thought of non-white people. Especially the thought of large numbers of them (such the “hordes” of “Mexicans” who are supposedly “streaming across the border”). It’s an instilled, fearful conception of supposedly dirty people with supposedly dirty habits, who threaten to contaminate cleaner, “whiter” spaces, as well as the white people in them.
And then there’s Myers’ larger point, about how such “racetalk” and the feelings that provoke it help to maintain structures of power in society. I can just imagine how this contaminating part of the collective white psyche is going to manifest itself for a lot of people in November. That's when American voters will be asked who belongs in another fantasized, highly symbolic space of abstract cleanliness—the White House.