Wednesday, July 29, 2009

No safety for racism

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.


sojourner said...


I was led here through MaconD's site. Thank you for your efforts to stand up and be counted. Sometimes, as a black woman, I'm disheartened that these conversations are the still the norm, especially when people of color aren't present. (I've read the studies.) Sometimes, I've even had folks in various workplace setttings feel so "comfortable" with me that they spout such nonsense to my face. Then they have the nerve to look shocked -- shocked -- when they get told about themselves. While I have balked at turning these situations into teachable moments, since it's tiring being white folks' personal PBS, I realized that Dr. King, Ghandi, Ella Baker, et al. had it right in that they actively sought to teach people how to relate to each other. If you have no one willing to do that, and no one willing to speak truth to power, the likelihood of oppression and moral decay increases. Hang in there.

macon d said...

Great post! I applaud your determination to say something. I think of the pressure that white folks feel to NOT say something as a kind of unspoken or implied white solidarity. I've been encouraged all my life to think of myself as being in solidarity with white people AND, therefore, against other people. Now that I realize that, I don't like it, and I try to resist it, just as you're doing here. It's difficult to do so, and it can make other white people upset, and mad at us, but now, I'm mad at MYSELF if I don't speak up in these situations. Thank you for this encouraging post. (Maybe I can say that I'm in solidarity with people like you, people who are against "white solidarity.")

FilthyGrandeur said...

thank you both for your comments and encouragement. it's easier to ignore these things, but i've never hated myself after confronting someone about it, like i do if i ignore it. i don't want to be part of a collective that thinks racism is okay.

macon--we should start a club.

The Witty Mulatto said...

Somebody said on Macon's comments, "white people need to do more of the heavy lifting as far as fighting racism is concerned". I liked that. I mean, ANY TIME a white person hears something like that and lets it go, they are complicit in racism. Any time. Most of the time, though, they know they won't ever get called out on their indifference, so it's easy for them to turn their heads.

Renee said...

As a person of color I am not often privy to these conversations but due to the fact that the unhusband is white I have heard about plenty about them from him. Once people find out that his family is Black the begin to censor their words but their initial reaction is to let their inner racist fly sure in the belief that while in the company of a fellow white person that they are not offending anyone.
Thanks for having the courage to speak up. I know that it can be a difficult thing to do but unless these people are told directly they will continue to foul our society with their ignorance. Racism should be unacceptable no matter what company you are in.

macon d said...

This post keeps coming back to mind for me. I think my readers would appreciate it. Do you mind if I make it a guest post on my blog?

FilthyGrandeur said...


go right ahead--i'd be honored if you used this as a guest post!

Fenixmagic said...

Thanks for sharing this - I often think that if I don't speak up, I too am sharing in the blame. But damn if it isn't easier when it's not family or the elderly talking. (Here by way of Alas)

Maud said...

Good for you, FG. When I was younger and lived much of my life "out in the world" I thought it would do no good if I spoke up because I carry several marginalized identities myself, although white, and thought because of them that I spoke with no authority and anything I said would be easily dismissed. I have learned with age that how much authority your speech is seen as carrying is at least in part a result of how authoritatively you say it. I guess that's why it can be hard for the non-privileged to resist buying into the self-assumed authority of the privileged. Negotiating both your areas of privilege and your areas of non-privilege can be confusing, but getting better at asserting myself in areas where I am non-privileged has made me better able to assume responsibility for my privilege, as well. I didn't mean to make this comment all about me; I guess I'm just musing about the need to recognize the privilege you do possess before you can assume the responsibility that brings, as you are doing.

Y said...

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.

Honey, its not just other white people they do this with, thye do it with minorities too! I have noticed that whenever I get close with some white people my blackness disappears and they start talking the way they really feel. I had a friend in high school that I would talk to in Spanish class, play soccer with and what have you. One day I can to class with my hair is a bone straight style. She said "Oh I like your hair, its always so neat, why cant the others have hair like ours?"

WTF? I knew who "the others" were (other black girls) and knew she was implying my straight hair was better or superior to the curlier styles a lot of my black classmates opted for.

Great posting!