I'm only slowly wrapping my brain around what that actually means. I don't burn crosses, use racial slurs, or kick small children of any skin tone. I try my best to be polite whenever I can. But something has become painfully clear to me in the last month: all these things are true and I am still a racist. The fundamental assumptions of racism are in my very bones. I don't wear Confederate flags or wear White Power t-shirts, but you know what I DO do?
I cut in front of black men waiting in line.
I cut in front of black men waiting in line.
I probably would never have noticed except that I've done it twice in the last two weeks. The first was at the post office. The post office in my town is pretty small, and the "line" is an anomalous concept when there are only a couple of people there. When I entered, there was only two clerks working, both assisting someone. Standing roughly at where the line might be, if there was one, was a black gentleman doing something on his phone.
Being the polite, considerate white girl I am, I walked up to this gentleman and asked, "Are you in line?"
He responded, but I didn't quite catch what he'd said. Maybe he had an accent I wasn't expecting. Maybe he mumbled. In any case, I heard "Svlsndlfkser," unaccompanied by any clarifying gesture as he still had both hands on his phone.
"Okay, thanks!" said I, politely, and stepped up to the edge of the counter that is where the head of the line is when there's a line. I didn't really plan to. My brain went into awkward-social-situation panic mode, the thought of saying "Sorry, what was that?" made me want to die, and my feet had just stepped me forward with all the polite urgency of stepping through a door that someone is holding open.
And then, as I waited, I started second-guessing myself. What HAD he said? Had he said he was in line? Surely not, because if that were the case, he'd be correcting me, right? He'd be saying "Hey, miss, I said I was next!" And there are lots of reasons for people to NOT be in line at the post office. He could be looking up an address, or waiting for someone, or any one of a hundred things.
He was doing none of those things. I stepped up to the next available clerk, and thirty seconds later, he stepped up to clerk number 2 whose last customer had just left.
I was horrified. I'd gotten it wrong. My mind reeled with analysis. Was this just one of those silly misunderstandings not worth mentioning, or was it a manifestation of my white privilege? How should I make it right? Had he noticed?
I screwed up my courage, and as we were both leaving the post office, I apologized for misunderstanding and cutting the line. He gave me a look--a very eloquent look of "Are you now going to waste MORE of my time with your white guilt, lady?" and left, uninterested in standing around to listen to my self-flagellating post-colonial analysis of the situation.
Well, lesson learned, right?
Because last week at Ikea, I freaking DID IT AGAIN.
I was coming up to the checkout line with my arms full of a picture frame, a frying pan lid, and several bottles of sparkling juice (you know how Ikea is). Coming up from the opposite direction was, you guessed it, a young black man (not the same one, thank goodness) pushing a cart with a flat-pack box on it. We converged.
And without thinking, without hesitating, with a polite smile, I hustled quickly into line ahead of him. Every bone in my body knew that the polite, the courteous, the ladylike thing to do was to move quickly and get my shopping done and get out of his way as soon as possible, to minimize the inconvenience to this other person.
"Hey," said the checkout clerk, "I'm going on break, so I need to close this line after you guys."
"Oh!" said I. "Well, I'll just go to another line, then." I turned and smiled at the man behind me. "You can go ahead."
"Yeah," said he, pointing to the black woman in line ahead of me, "Because I'm with her."
The bottom dropped out of my stomach.
I didn't even check. I didn't make so much as a ceremonial gesture towards the "After you . . . no, after you" game of which Minnesotans are so fond. I just expected that man to yield to me, the way I expect an escalator stair to move up as I step on it. I was polite, I was courteous, I was smiling and friendly, but I expected him to yield to me and acted accordingly.
It's a funny word, "expect." We hardly ever use it in the right context. In school, I mostly heard it in terms of behavior: "I expect everyone here to be quiet and attentive while I'm talking." What those teachers all meant, of course, was that they didn't expect anyone to be quiet and attentive--they just wanted that to happen. If they had expected it, there'd have been no need for the announcement. The teacher expected all the students to continue being stuck to the floor in accordance with the laws of gravity, to keep breathing, to blink on a semiregular basis. The teacher was ordering them to be quiet precisely because quietness could not be expected and needed to be enforced.
I have never in my life given a black man a lecture on how I expect him to step back and let me go first in line. But I do expect it. My foot goes forward automatically, on the assumption that this is how people interact in the world. I don't stop to think "Hey, is this guy joining his wife, who is already in line ahead of me? Is this man just passing the time waiting for a post office clerk by playing a round of Candy Crush? Should I maybe step back and let someone else go first, in a politeness that feels to me to be extraordinary but might actually just be the baseline, ordinary, normal politeness that this man should be able to expect me to show?" I've never stopped to think. And now I've left wondering how many times in my life I've cut in front of a black man in line and don't even remember doing it.
I am white. I am privileged. My sense of what is right, proper, appropriate, and normal is skewed by those facts. I don't get to fall back on a sense of my own politeness as a defense against accusations of racism. I've got to do more than that. Part of me wants to blame those guys for not calling me out--Why didn't you just say "Hey, Lady, I was here first!"?--but I know that's not fair. I know what might happen to a black man calling out a white woman in public for being racist and rude. I might protest to myself that I wouldn't have reacted badly, fought for my stolen spot in line, cried 'reverse racism' and 'unreasonable' and 'mean' and 'harassment' . . . but even if I wouldn't, how is he to know that? By the 'I'm Not One Of THOSE White Women" t-shirt I'm always wearing? (Just kidding. I don't own such a shirt. And if I did, I wouldn't be entitled to wear it, as I clearly AM one of those white women--the ones who cut in front of you in lines and think it's totally normal.)
The burden of observation and correction is on me alone. This is my problem to solve. My racism to observe and address. This month I noticed it. Next month I get to start trying to fix it. And on the way, let's hope I notice other unkindnesses that I inflict upon the world without conscious thought. I know they're there. After all, I am racist.