I work with one of those people who says racist things, but is clearly oblivious to her own racism. After all, she's perfectly comfortable speaking to other white people, nonchalantly exuding her ignorance with thoughtlessly racist remarks. She's referenced "the ghettos" with upturned nose, and in that non-thinking privileged manner, states that she stays clear of those places and those people who apparently choose to live there.
I've seen her jaw drop when I mention going home to the Detroit area, and seen her face twist into judgmental disgust at the mention that I listen to rap. I've heard that sneering accusation of, "Oh, so your brother thinks he's black."
But--for whatever reason--it seems her comfort level with me has increased, because today she insisted on telling me about how an obnoxious black girl (she made a point to specify) was acting "disgraceful" at a public pool, apparently ruining her and her boyfriend's good time. I interrupted her, and said that in no way is the girl's annoying behavior attributed to her skin color--but she was hearing none of it. I don't think it really even registered in her mind that I, a fellow white woman, could be offended by what she was saying about an annoying young black woman. Despite my interruption, she continued: "I mean, don't black people know how to behave? Why do they act like that?"
Now, another co-worker was witness to this story, and he said nothing. We both sort of gave each other that awkward look before walking away into the next aisle. I figured interrupting her didn't work, so I'd try ignoring her. But that didn't work very well either, and she kept on with her racist rant until the subject was changed.
This exchange reminds me of something I read recently at Fugitivus:
Now anybody who’s been in a school setting knows that you do occasionally run into students who drive you up the fucking wall. But anybody who’s been one form of privileged class or another also knows (if you don’t, think on this some) that if that person who drives you up the fucking wall is black/gay/female/feminist/(insert minority label here), their otherness becomes one of the things that drives you up the wall. Instead of being a person who you thinks speaks uncomfortably loud, they become a loud black person, a shrill woman, an in-your-face gay person. Their minority status becomes an integral part of what they do that pisses you off. I’ve done this, you’ve done this; let’s not fuck about.Why do we do this? Because it's easy.
As for the other co-worker who also heard her ignorance? I mentioned it to him later, when she wasn't around. I told him how uncomfortable she makes me, spouting her racism without thinking or caring that I might be offended. He told me he finds it offensive too, but just ignores it.
Well, that's too easy. I am normally quiet and reserved, but I've resolved that I might as well speak up--she seems comfortable saying these things around lots of people at our workplace, even a couple managers, and no one says a damn thing (guess what? I work with a bunch of white people). If we're ever going to achieve this "post-racial" ideal, then we need to challenge racism--point it out, expose it. We can't be afraid of confrontation. I think part of this silence is that since this a majority white workplace, no one wants to be the "odd" or "sensitive" one by pointing out another white person's racism--I mean, there's no POC around, so who's offended, right? But that shouldn't matter. People need to know that racism is not appropriate or acceptable anywhere at any time in any company. Ever.
I'm tired of this "safe" feeling white people get when they're in the company of other white people, where they whip out their racism and prejudices in a blinding example of their white privilege. I want white people to lose that safe feeling. I want them to stop and think about what they're planning to say, and then not say it because they know it won't be tolerated. Because they know it's ignorant and hateful and racist.
Ignoring it won't make it go away. Which is why I interrupted her, and why, when she decides to say something else racist (from her record, I know she will), I will confront her, and tell her I am offended, and what she's saying is racist and ignorant and I shouldn't have to deal with that when I'm at work. And I'll probably be accused of oversensitivity, but that's okay, because maybe I'll make her as uncomfortable as she makes me, and it'll eat at her until she realizes that she's wrong; and if not, at least she will know that I will not be party to her ignorance, despite what she thinks my skin-color represents.
Semi-related: Check out another Macon D post at stuff white people do, regarding the defense of hate speech under free speech.