So this happened:
After driving around that corner and through this yellow light, up the one-way street and around again through the morning work traffic in an unfamiliar neighborhood of Brooklyn, I found a parking spot in front of a row of brownstones. I grabbed my gym bag from the back seat, double-checked the locks on the doors, and kicked down the cracked sidewalk toward the YMCA. I had never been here before. This particular neighborhood had fences. Not the decorative ones skirting the trees and patches of grass pervasive to NYC in general to keep unaware pedestrians and wandering animals at bay. Here the fences were prohibitive rather than suggestive. The fences here climbed high over the first story windows and barred the second.
Here they laced even the doorways. As I approached the intersection, I noticed a middle-aged woman with a drag-behind, travel carryon walking my direction from across the street. She hoisted her bag against her side with one arm, not utilizing the wheels. Even this early in the morning, her shoulder length hair fell in smooth brown curls to frame her warm complexion, her make-up flawless. There was little movement on this street. A few people lingered by the YMCA entrance. One man sat on his steps watching the morning pass. I noticed them as I did the approaching woman and, adhering to New York social code, did not avert my eyes from my destination. No salutary smile or nod as my Southern manners dictated. I was far from home and the only person of my race in sight; my only objective here was to exercise and get cleaned up for the day ahead listening to the presentations at The New School. As the woman and I crossed paths she paused to yell, “Why don’t you jump off the bridge, you white bitch.” I kept my eyes forward and laughed a little to myself not having expected any acknowledgment—let alone one of such caliber. Seconds later she continued. “If you are white, stay on the other side of the river.” I smiled to myself and went inside, not giving the matter much more thought.
OK, that last sentence was a lie. This interaction turned and turned inside my mind—as I ran, as I showered, as I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, even as I listened to bell hooks’ discussion on transgression and the presentation of black bodies in media.
Here’s the rub: this is not racism. The woman who yelled at me was not being racist.
Granted, she was not being polite, but the equivocation of affronted political correctness with racism has too long overshadowed the underlying issue. This was outside of politesse but not racist even though the comment referred to my race. And here is why: I laughed. Perhaps I laughed at the tale as a possible narrative for, as a writer, I constantly look for novel anecdotes about what “happened on the way to the forum.” Or it could have been the oddity and surprise of the situation which amused me. Or it could have been the realization of completely misreading her that morning and possessing zero understanding of what experiences occupied her mind or the possible slights she was diffusing. But the point is still there: I laughed. Her invective was not a threat. My safety, ability to comport myself, or my socio-economic progression was in no way hampered by her anger. Hell, my day wasn’t even ruined.
Racism is not about the feelings of one person toward another. Let us not confuse it with prejudice where a personal predilection dictates action based upon stereotyped assumptions or fears about a perceived racial, sexual, or class orientation. It is much, much bigger than that.
Much, much bigger than you or me or the aforementioned woman. It is a systematic discrimination and withholding of privilege, safety, ability, and comfort because of color and/or nationality. It exists as an institution above us, behind our language, and within our social code.
Even as an outsider dissimilar with the majority of the inhabitants of an unfamiliar neighborhood, I felt perfectly at ease to conduct my business and to move freely without inhibition or concern for my safety or any fear of oppression. I was not going to be stopped by the police for looking suspicious or for not fitting in. My earning potential was not hampered by her displeasure. No possibility was barred me for looking as I do. Nor did I feel the threat of danger or assault on my person because of my racial positionality. The system, even when a physical minority, has been established to give me a chance. And that chance affords a place, an ability to determine my own definition, and even the ability to laugh at situations that could have been risky or frightful had the mechanisms of privilege been switched.
Racism is not only within an inappropriate joke, a look askance at someone as they pass by, a burning cross, or discrimination of housing and/or employment. Each one of those acts are complicit participation within a system which is established and reinforced by the hetero-normative, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.
Now don’t get me wrong here.
This is not to vilify or cast blame upon any particular person who participates or identifies with the dominant socio-class. No offense, but this system is bigger than that. We are past the days when we can point at any particular white, straight, business man as the enforcer of the system.
But unless you are actively working to dissemble the mechanisms of privilege and empower diversity in all forms, you are simultaneously upholding the system which benefits one while restricting others.
An aspect of privilege most of us privileged don’t want to admit is that we don’t have to think about privilege. Peggy McIntosh called facing white privilege “elusive and fugitive,” over twenty-five years ago, and as a whole, we have not encroached upon any robust apprehension of it since. White (and male) privilege is rarely considered until threatened. When I walk into the room, no one wonders why I am where I am, if I am alone, if I am leaving alone, or going home with them. Their thought is not one of belonging or whether or not I have upset delicate social relationships in being where I am. And since I have not upset persona particular expectations, the perceivers are not confronted with their own self-definition. They continue on without ever wondering where they stand within the social spectrum. It is frighteningly easy to ignore. And unless confronted, acknowledged, and challenged, it will refuse to reconstruct within a paradigm of greater equality. Life is most profoundly felt at its perimeters. Society has given me a berth where the perimeters lie upon who I know, what kind of girls I date, and what car I drive. Those are the requisites and possible impediments to perceived success within the “myth of meritocracy” wherein most people benefited by privilege believe privilege itself is hinged upon personal drive and acumen.
Because that is the locus of struggle for most who have the same socio-economic identity as I do, that is also the limits of perceived persona. Still, worlds exist outside of that monolithic worldview which are as valid and beautiful as any sphere imaginable. Unfortunately, by most, these worlds are not seen.
This works to the depth that most of you reading this probably assumed my white male-ness as a given in the short episode above because it was not mentioned (and props to those of you who didn’t). It is that pervasive. Think about that. What does that then mean when the perception shifts? What are the other assumptions which are inferred? Do any of those assumptions restrict or endanger someone’s freedom and ability to express themselves? If it is easy for you to pass a police officer without worry of being frisked or arrested for looking how you do, remember that.
If you can walk home alone without worry of being assaulted, taken, violated or worse, remember that. If you are able to declare the love of your beloved without fear of being beaten, fired, or ostracized, remember that. Now think about all those who can’t—think of all those who are struggling under a system which demands of their identity explanation, justification, or apology. And what are you doing to champion difference?
~ This post was written by Steele Peterson Campbell, a graduate of Auburn University, with a Master’s Degree in Literature. He is a writer who is currently completing his first novel and currently resides in Nashville, TN. You can follow Steele on Twitter @TheSteeleC.