I never considered myself racist. Like, how could I be, raised in the wonderful melting pot of coastal, Southern California by liberal Democrats? When our family picture was a visual representation of the song, One of These is Not Like the Others?
Surrounded by Hispanic, Vietnamese, Persian, and many other cultures, African-American people were not too much on my radar. A few in my High school. My closest associations were the two different African-American women my mother employed as Housekeepers, first Bea, then Margaret.
During the summers Bea worked for my mom, she brought her grandson with her and we played, being of an age. We moved, moved back to another neighborhood, and Mom found Margaret. These two women did much more than clean; busy with their own lives as they must surely have been, both would stay to have a cup of coffee and some conversation with my mom, who was lonely.
So, all my few associations were positive. But I didn’t know any African-American people, so I just didn’t really think about them. And the Civil Rights Act, right? Everyone got a fair shake because it was the Law.
In the workplace, I witnessed in-the-face racism, the first time, I was 18 and waiting tables in Newport Beach, a tourist town. Despite the poshness of the address, the ventilation hood over the grill was always breaking down. On this particular night, the three grill cooks, Francisco, Vicente, and Jaime, all had water-drenched bandanas over their faces to screen out the smoke. They were drenched in sweat.
There was no soda fountain in the kitchen and during the night, waitstaff would run back pitchers of soda for the grill cooks; they needed the sugar and salt to stay hydrated. Francisco pulls his bandana down and asks of the three of us waiting for orders, “Can someone bring us some soda?” and he is clearly dying. To my horror, Audrey pipes up, cool Audrey, whom I’d liked so much until this moment, and says, “We’re too busy! You fucking Mexicans are gonna have to wait!” Grabbing her platter of ribs and onion rings, she turns on her heel and probably doesn’t hear me when I say, loudly, “I’ll go get you some soda!” And I do. I bring back three pitchers of soda. Coincidentally, I never have to beg for special orders or favors from the kitchen, before or after I delivered those sodas. Just saying: treat people decent and they will, too.
But even today, Audrey’s words still feel like a personal slap in the face, and I guess it was. It woke me that things aren’t always like they seem on the surface. A pretty, friendly, fellow waitress, who had always been cool to me, can be a righteous bitch and a racist. It was an important lesson.
Many years pass and I see other crap like the above. I go to college and learn about Redlining. Laugh right out loud if you wish, but I was shocked to learn that devious white people perfected ways of skirting the law to keep out brown and black people. I learn about Brown V the State Board of Education, and Plessy V Ferguson, the legalized slavery of sharecropping, Jim Crow, the Klan in all it’s awfulness, Emmett Till, Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit.
I find I can no longer read my favorite book, Gone With The Wind, in quite the same way. When I read about “a lost civilization of Knights and Ladies” I keep hearing a whisper, built on the backs of slaves.
Many more years pass and I go to work on a highly diverse campus, and this time, it’s mostly African-American, not like my High school which was mostly Hispanic and Vietnamese. So I get to know a lot of African-American people: Principals, Teachers, Cops, Parents, and Students.
I am introduced to Black Culture, but here I am confused; just as there are a lot of different versions of White culture, each with their own peculiarities and traditions (my own natal Irish-American/Jewish-American, or Italian-American, Polish-American, German-American, etc., etc.), I find a lot of different cultures among the African-American people I come to know: New Orleans Creole that came with the kids who arrived after Hurricane Katrina; our SRO, who liked to hunt and fish out on his land in the country but could also quote you the Bible, Shakespeare, and Walter Mosley; Teachers who came from highly-educated families, sometimes the third or fourth generation to Teach; Rap and Gangsta culture on display, comically often by boys too young to shave. I began to wonder, when people talk about Black Culture, what do they mean? Which one? African-Americans seem (to me) as wildly diverse as White Americans, or the myriad Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and so on. We’re just all a big mess of influences. For my money, it’s that mess which makes America truly great. The ultimate jambalaya, if you will.
But here is a thing I remembered, while pondering all of this: I was 16 or 17, and out very late at night, up in LA where I most certainly should not have been. I took a wrong exit somewhere, and got lost. Straight into Compton.
Compton had always been spoken of as a “bad” area into which the wise did not tread, especially if one were White. Blonde and blue-eyed, I am Extremely White.
Before GPS on smartphones, we had Maps, specifically in SoCal, the Thomas Guide, and after this night I would definitely purchase one but alas, I had none, and would have to ask directions of someone at a gas station or convenience store. But all the gas stations I passed where manned by African-American men. So I drove until I found a gas station with an Hispanic attendant, with whom I felt comfortable and who sent me back down the street to the 405 Southbound, with which I was already intimately familiar and could find my way home.
It wasn’t that the African-American men manning the gas stations looked particularly malign or dangerous, it was that my life had not included, to that point, many African-American men, and I’d been warned about that part of the city. So I went to what was familiar to me, or at least didn’t seem threatening: an Hispanic male. I’d grown up with Mexican kids in every one of my classes and that culture, Hispanic people, felt safe to me.
Here’s my point: I thought I was pretty smart to get myself home by finding that Hispanic attendant. I was safely home, my parents none the wiser about where I’d been. Forty years later, my brain suddenly shouts, “A ha! Unconscious bias! Right there in your psyche big as life!” That night, I was directed by the irrational fear of someone, a whole class of people, because they did not look like me, and I hadn’t known any closely enough to understand they are, actually, just like me. Eating, breathing, sleeping, loving, hating, yearning to live a life unmolested by others, just like me.
So, I never thought of myself as Racist, and I don’t know that I do now, but I do know I might find some more of these ugly little things, assumptions I didn’t know I had, but that directed my behavior. I hope I am brave enough to own them, too.
Questioning my strongly held opinions will never lead me astray; when they are the right ones, they hold fast. When I can see the wrongness, or….. unformedness? instability? When they are unsupportable by fact, or just plain erroneous? I am gifted with vision, to see another side, if I am brave enough. That can’t ever be wrong, and maybe it will help me be helpful, where help is wanted?
Where have you found your unconscious biases?