If We Don’t Know about Racism, Maybe it’s Our Own Fault
The Public Defender broke the news: the DA was dismissing the charges against my friend. We were seated in his office, a small, square space with a desk and chair and not much else. I was there in my year-long wade through racism and incompetence in support of my friend. A white woman had claimed—three months after the fact—he had stolen her purse. Now, two days before trial, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich was dismissing the charges.
What I mostly remember about the PD’s office is wood: wood desk, wood chair, wood walls. I was as astonished as that smooth-faced wood when the PD told me the reason for the dismissal. The white woman’s original description of the attacker bore no relation to my very distinctive-looking friend except they were both Black men.
Don’t think I didn’t vent my outrage to the PD, who was not the culprit—he’d taken over the file only as the case neared trial. As I was leaving, I flat out said, “This wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been poor.”
The PD walked me to the door. I was in the hallway when he stuck his head around the doorjamb. “And Black,” he added.
The PD was Black. I’m white. We had been communicating by email, by phone, by my visiting his office at 201 Poplar. But he only felt comfortable coming out with this pronouncement, almost as an afterthought, when I was literally gone from the meeting.
I think of this when white folks complain about someone “playing the race card.” These white folks believe they have never personally been in a racist situation. So how can it exist, particularly on a systemic level? Thing is, no one’s going to tell you that a situation is racist—much less that your actions are racist—if they don’t half-way believe you won’t bite their head off.
Black folks bringing up race to a white person is a landmine. It’s hard to know how the white person will react—silence, a mild denial, sulky offense, or an explosion. That’s just the immediate reaction. The longterm ones can include lost friendships. Delayed passive-aggressive behavior. Loud and widespread complaints, and simmering resentment that never seems to extinguish.
So if no one’s telling you about the racism of situations—or your behavior—it’s probably because they have concluded it’s not safe to tell you. They cannot trust you to react well.
And by you, I mean us. Did my “outrage” signal to the PD that I thought this situation was an anomaly? That my white feelings were paramount? That my year-long involvement was white crusader action, not true caring about my friend? Was he uncomfortable talking race even in this situation because I hadn’t named it to him?
If we don’t want to accept this, we can conclude we’ve simply never been in a racist situation with African Americans…but that’s a really hard position to take unless you’ve been raised in a cave and lived under a rock ever since.
Instead, I have a radical suggestion. If you are white like me, when interacting with African Americans, let’s be aware that the person in front of us has probably had a terrible racist experience with a white person. Perhaps when they were a child. Perhaps last week or that very morning. And yet, they are still interacting with us. That is grace given, and we should be grateful for receiving it.