This is a guest post by Harriet Jacobs, who blogs at Fugitivus. She describes herself as "a mid-twenties white girl living in the Midwest. I work at a non-profit that assists families and deals with a lot of racial politics." Regarding her pseudonym, she writes, "My username is Harriet Jacobs, an homage to the author of an autobiography of a life in and escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs was a helluva woman. . . . I’m not trying to build up a comparison, even metaphorically. I’m just trying to tell you that Harriet Jacobs is the shit."
This post is part of Harriet's "Daily Dose of Racism Series," which continues here.
A conversation with white, liberal, educated acquaintances took a turn into Conservative Talk Radio Land once the subject of Affirmative Action was breached. All these acquaintances have, in the past, even in the same conversation, complained about the total incompetence of many of their fellow white students, but those complaints never took the extra step of assuming these incompetent students attend school due to unfair advantages conferred upon them by their race.
As soon as race became a factor, all the liberal racism came pouring out, from the disclaimers about how certainly “they” and “those” and “inner city” people have had unfair advantages from the start, how some of them don’t even know how to raise their children, and racism is bad, y’all. I’ve come to consider this the white liberal way of saying “I’m not racist, but,” now that “I’m not racist, but” has become a more identifiably racist phrase. Now it’s “I have a tertiary, surface understanding of and sympathy for the buzzword social issues I generally hypothetically know racism is a part of, but black people sure are stupid.”
I acted out a little. When talking with liberal white racists, the kind who stumble like frightened rabbits over “AfricanAmerican black colored uh personofcolor I mean colorblindcolorblindcolorblind,” but can say quite clearly and without a fear-ridden speech impediment, “Some of these people don’t even know you’re not supposed to hit children,” I like to rephrase things more bluntly. Nine times out of ten, it just makes everybody too uncomfortable to go on. One time out of ten, it triggers a healthier, more honest and genuine discussion, now that the pent-up “is it okay that I say this?” is out of the bag. I said, “Programs like affirmative action are made to make whites feel better about being racist, because look, we threw all this money at the darkies and they’re still stupid drug addicts on welfare. Obviously we can’t do anything to fix these people.”
Unfortunately, this time, neither thing happened. There was just a general nodding of heads and, “Yeah, white racists, they’re bad,” before a segue into, “There’s this not-white kid in my class who is like soooooo dumb and seriously, you’ve got to figure that’s why he’s even there.”
Okay, so this is a racist thing, obviously, but it’s not the point of my post. Neither is affirmative action the point of my post, because I have a sort of complicated opinion about that. My point is, my white acquaintances presumed an awful lot on our shared ethnicity. They presumed that this was a safe social space to express their racist beliefs, and have them reassured as normal (white), rational, and logical (unracist) beliefs. They presumed that I would either agree, not care, or not disagree enough to argue. And they presumed all that because I am white.
That did not feel like a safe social space to me. As I started to disagree, I could feel the undercurrent of uncomfortable hostility begin to grow. When I went quiet, the hostility just grew in me instead. Which is maybe a little like what it’s like to be not-white. I didn’t feel comfortable making what was obviously a passing chit-chat — “Did you hear about the guy who threw his shoes at Bush? Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, the weather’s been bad. No, school’s okay, except black people are stupid. Hey, how’s your mom?” — into a centerpiece of awkward unexamined beliefs that trigger conflicted rage and guilt. That was not the casual evening I envisioned when I went out for a goddamn burger with some folks I knew.
I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because I knew it would have gone a whole lot of nowhere — liberal white racism is oftentimes as bulwark and unassailable as white power racism — and I would have ended up fuming for days, over people whom I have very little emotional investment in. And that also bothered me. These acquaintances are not the most important people in the world to me, not by far. They are nice enough. I was not seeing us becoming closer friends, but I wasn’t set against that happening. Except, now I am. Because that is not a safe social space for me. Because while, if the stars aligned, I may have been happy to put the effort and energy into forming a deeper, friendlier relationship with them, I am not willing to put the effort and energy into explaining to them that racism is bad, and also, by the way, that was some racist bullshit out of your mouth there. I don’t want to explain that any more than I want to explain to somebody that you don’t come into my house and shit on my rug — they’re adults and they should goddamn know.
This is what comes of being the “right” race in a racist society. You are an assumed depository for vile, racist conversations and opinions, and your assumed compatriots operate under the belief that this is not damaging, enraging, difficult, isolating, or painful to hear. I do not feel like an overtly radical person. On the spectrum of anti-racism, I consider myself a tick to the left of moderate. But even that perception is radical, because to get there, I’ve had to move my liberal white friends a whole football field to the right of moderate, into “I’m not racist racist, but I am better, smarter, and more rational than the hypothetical dark masses that exist in my brain” territory. But just by virtue of believing that incompetent black people have the right to be as proportionally represented in higher education as incompetent white people, I am too radical to be friends with most white people I know. Which, being white and only moderately anti-racist, just about everybody in my life are white people I can’t be friends with.