In the thread about the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates in front of his home, Ron asked how we could be certain that the cops involved were racist. We don’t know what was in the cop’s head, after all. Maybe a white guy who acted exactly the same way would have been arrested, too.1
The call for certainty in these situations has the effect of making racism — and bigotry in general — invisible. It’s very rare that racism conveniently announces itself, wearing a white hood and handing out white business cards that say “I am a white racist, beyond any possible doubt.” In particular, racism cloaked in authority doesn’t act this way.
Racism can usually only be proven statistically, in the aggregate. We can look at pay data and notice that, even when qualifications and experience are similar, white people are paid more than people of color. We can look into statistics about police shootings and see that black and latin@ people (especially men) are much, much more likely to be killed by cops than whites.
But since we are not magical telepaths, we are incapable of looking at any particular shooting, however unreasonable, and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt what was going through the cop’s head the moment he2 pulled the trigger. “Maybe the cop just got no sleep last night! Maybe his wife left him, and so he was especially violence-prone! Maybe that particular cop would have been just as willing to shoot a white suspect at that moment!”
The same argument applies to any social interaction where racism is suspected. “That store detective might have followed a white boy around, if the white boy had been wearing those pants! That bank teller might have been just as rude to a white customer, for all we know! Maybe the real estate agent just forgot to show the houses in the nice neighborhood that day, and would have done so regardless of race! My cousin once asked to feel my hair, and I thought it was nice!” Blah blah blah.
It’s easy for us white people to think of it that way, because racial discrimination isn’t part of our daily lives. For us, we read a single, isolated report in a newspaper or on a blog, and we can say “well, there’s no real proof here… maybe it was all a coincidence…” We’re able to do that because we experience racism mainly as isolated news stories, not as a persistent pattern of ill-treatment in our life.
I’m white, so this next part is speculative. But I imagine that if I were a person of color, the constant encounters with ambiguous racism would wear me down.3 Because in some ways, it’s harder to defend against or respond to ambiguous racism than to overt racism. (Over the years, I’ve heard many Black people say so, both online and offline, but I don’t remember a specific name to cite — but this is not, of course, in any way an original thought on my part.) If the store clerk says “you have to get out, because we only serve whites here,” that’s as clear-cut as can be. Most people — even most white people — will admit that’s racist and wrong.
In contrast, suppose — after serving the white person ahead of you on line politely — the clerk makes you wait five minutes while she talks on the phone, is rude when she talks to you, and demands ID before accepting your credit card? You think this is racism, but will any white person acknowledge it? Or will they just think you’re a troublemaker, playing the race card, seeing things that just aren’t there.
A lot of our sense of reality is taken from what the people around us are willing to acknowledge. Has everyone seen the movie “Gaslight”? From Wikipedia:
Gaslighting is a sinister action which, depending on the exact circumstances of the situation involved, could be considered a form of intimidation, torture, harassment, or psychological abuse. It is a technique used to either scare a person, or to cause them to appear to discredit their own judgment or even sanity in front of others. The classic example of gaslighting in its simplest form is changing things in a person’s environment without their knowledge, and then telling them they “must be imagining things” when they discover and ask about the changes.
I think the demand for certainty and proof before racist incidents can be acknowledged, is how white people are collectively4 attempting to gaslight people of color.
“Maybe she just had indigestion that began as she started ringing you up; maybe she doesn’t like your perfume. How can you know for sure this is about race? Isn’t racism too serious a matter to level accusations without proof? Look, that other clerk who was there is black, and she didn’t object. Are you saying the black clerk is racist, too?” And on and on.
And if all you look at is the one, individual incident, maybe that way of talking about racism makes sense.
But for people who are assaulted by a lifetime of usually ambiguous, racist incidents, it would be a kind of slow suicide to try and view the world that way. It would bring about ulcers. Which is why expecting people of color to view the world that way is unfair and unjust.
- In fact, Ron
saidimplied he was certain this was true — “If I walked out my front door and out to the street yelling at a couple of cops and didn’t get out of their faces I bet my white ass would be in cuffs too.” — ironic how the need for certainty and proof is sometimes flexible. [↩]
- Or she. But usually he. [↩]
- I do experience ambiguous anti-fat attitudes sometimes, but that’s a subject for another post. [↩]
- Not 100% of white people, but a lot of white people [↩]