Hello, everyone, and welcome to the first week of my new series on this blog! As discussed a few weeks ago, this next period of eight weeks will be devoted to a series of topics like race, sexuality, and gender, approached from the angle of the often-uncomfortable angle of everything I did not know about these things, all the ways I needed to wake up to the reality of my privilege and the way the world (often subtly) discriminates against others. This is not some kind of declaration that I know it all, and in fact is quite the opposite, a revealing of all the ways I’ve been ignorant, the ways that it is not OK to be ignorant. This week I wanted to set the tone with a discussion of something I did a few months ago that, while I can’t honestly discern them motive for, is worth interrogating all the same.
It happened a few weeks ago, as I was walking down the street with a heavy bag of groceries in my right hand, and at one point switched that bag over to my left hand for no reason that I could discern other than to give my right arm a break from the weight. This seems like something that’s completely inconsequential, and at first I gave no thought to exactly what I’d done. It wasn’t until a few moments later that I realized something downright disturbing: the moment in which I’d switched the bag over to my other hand had corresponded exactly with me walking past a young black woman.
This is not some kind of declaration that I’m consciously racist, because as I mentioned already there was no conscious motivator for my action. Questions of over racism here are completely irrelevant, entirely besides the point. Instead, this is something vastly more uncomfortable: a discussion of the ways that long-standing cultural stigmas about race and criminality have seeped into me, infecting me. Did I truly switch the bag from one hand to another because one of my arms was tired, as I? Or did I switch hands because I was worried subconsciously about being robbed, and simply convince myself later that I did so for relief?
The idea that one might be racist, after all, is an intensely uncomfortable one. In a society that is appropriately conscious about how we handle racial differences, it’s incredibly hard to think of oneself as prejudiced in any way, so we very often hide. We hide behind the idea that conscious racism is the only kind, argue “I’m not racist!” because we aren’t ever overtly racially motivated, and convince ourselves that we exhibit racism’s symptoms for benign reasons, like exhaustion or distraction or humor. In doing so, however, we ignore the fact that we contract some subtle prejudice, transmitted insidiously and inevitably from our history and its current impact on our culture.
I’m not some kind of hero for thinking critically about this for myself, and this isn’t some kind of laudable act. No one, after all, is a hero simply because they vaccinate themselves, and that is exactly what I’m doing here. In forcing myself to question the motives underlying my own actions, I’m coming to understand just how far-reaching the infection that is the thread of prejudice underpinning my culture can reach. It is, of course, largely impossible for me to know for certain what my subconscious motivations for doing anything are, and indeed discovering these motivations is not at all the point of this. The point of this is to learn, to try to understand the lasting effects of a history of prejudice, small or large as they might be. And if I can shed some light on this, and show someone somewhere how the world they experience isn’t the world how others experience it, then I’ll have done something meaningful.
With excitement and optimism,