You Might Be a Racist . . .
An Everyday Action That Is
Hurtful and Demeaning
Some Things Really Are Black and White
You’re female—teenaged or older—and you’re walking, perhaps at an outlet mall, in the grocery store parking lot, on a sidewalk toward a restaurant, into a doctor’s office, to a movie, to a play, at an outdoor carnival or concert, on a downtown street.
You see a black man approach. He could be any age, but for illustration, let’s assume he’s a young black man, late teens, twenties. He’s walking toward you from the opposite direction.
You’re smart. You read. You know about personal safety. What do you do? If you aren’t already wearing your purse pulled over your shoulder and across your body (a rather dumb, dangerous thing to do), you tug that purse ever-closer because, after all, you see a young black man and you have been conditioned to be afraid—to be very afraid.
Until a few weeks ago, I was one of those white women. A young black man I know, and of whom I am not the least bit afraid, recently discussed this purse-protection measure with my son (who also is white).
“You want to know what is one of the most racist things white people do?” he asked. He then described how every time he sees a white woman, she hugs her purse closer to her body because she just knows he is going to try to steal it.
He then went on to say that if he wanted said purse, he could and would take it, no matter how tight the woman’s grip.
He does not want any white woman’s purse, but he has grown angry with the assumption that he’s itching to steal every one he sees.
My son and I discussed how this scenario makes his friend feel. Being guys, he and his friend go right to the testosterone-fueled emotion of anger. Stepping into my motherly role of armchair psychologist, I went to the root of that anger emotion—hurt. I know that in the seconds before this young black man—and thousands of others—feels anger, he feels the pain of being branded a thief (or worse) just because he’s walking toward a white woman carrying a purse.
I’ve never experienced that emotion, but I have experienced pain when confronted by negative assumptions people have about me. Even so, I cannot compare what I felt to what happens to these black men every time they cross a white woman’s path. I can only imagine that it’s gut wrenching. I can only imagine what it does to their self-image to have to deal with the thought “You might be a thief” directed to them on a regular basis.
I mentioned that pain to my son, and in typical guy fashion, he said, “No, it just pisses him off.” With a powerful sense of remorse and regret, I admitted to my son that I, too, was guilty of that purse-protection action and vowed to never do it again. He looked at me and said, “How about the next time you see a young black man you just smile and say hello?”
A simple smile and a hello—an action so ordinary so as to seem almost mundane, but how life-changing and how affirming that hello could be to someone who is accustomed to being feared. How affirming that hello can be to simply acknowledge the basic humanity inherent in each of us—young black men, too.