by Guest Contributor Wendi Muse
While having dinner with a work mate of mine last night, I ended up discussing acceptance of whites into communities of color and vice versa in addition to interracial relationships. My friend, who is white, noted that I often “didn’t give people enough credit,” and made me to come to the ultimate conclusion that I have a rather pessimistic view of race relations in America, and quite frankly, within the world as a whole. As a black woman, I look around me and am constantly reminded that the group to which I belong is rarely seen as beautiful (unless enhanced by synthetic means of infinitely approaching whiteness), or intelligent, or responsible, or equal. But our discussion made me reflect on the source of my expectations for others.
Was I being harsh because of my personal experiences in which racism worked as a key element in rejection or could it be that people really had changed and I had not given them the chance to demonstrate?
Though the duration of the conversation was about 5 minutes, during most of which I fumbled for words, unable to fully explain my position on race relations in the United States and why I felt that blacks had decades, if not centuries, to go before we were going to be socially accepted or on equal par with others, I still thought long and hard about it hours later. I write this article now with the hope of working through some of the things my friend brought up.
While she was certainly a realist and did not think that America was all daisies for people of color, she noted that people are probably more accepting and less racist than I would assume. And considering she is white, she certainly may have heard some things from, say, other whites, that would be considered racist if they had really come up. But then I wondered, did she have this hope in the humanity and open mindedness of others because she had experienced less of their ugliness firsthand? Could it be, even, that they held their tongues unless somehow provoked by some event or an issue on the news, and she just so happened to not be there at that time to hear it?
The more and more I thought about her assertions, the more I realized that she was right. I wasn’t giving people enough credit. I was suffering from racism paranoia of sorts. A form of self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will, in which I assumed that others were racist, and so I didn’t approach them, befriend them, become close to them, or share as much of myself with them as my friends of color, or even more specifically, my black friends, because I feared the worst. I feared one day they would say something racist or betray my friendship or do something to make me say, “see I told you,’ and regret having befriended them in the first place. And eventually, as my close friend circles became darker and darker in hue or colored by some sort of adversity (i.e. class or sexuality), I recognized that I had placed straight, white, middle class folks somewhere on the perimeter, fulfilling my own expectation in the first place, if not allowing it. They only befriend or date white people, I found myself thinking, failing to realize that it was partially my own doing by removing myself from their presence or by assuming they would not be interested in me in any way except to treat me as some sort of token to write home about. My black friend. My black girlfriend. My believing that everyone was racist until proven otherwise was limiting me. It was making me become guarded. It was my way of protecting myself from rejection that wasn’t a given, but that I had experienced enough in the past to make me not want to taste its bitterness ever again.
I was recently reminded of the surprise element of racism between friends. A friend (ahem, ok, former) had posted a facebook status that read something like “gearing up for Memfrica.” For my non-Tennessean readers, “Memfrica” is a term some whites use to refer to Memphis. “Why?” you may ask. Memphis just so happens to have a very large black population (Memphis is 61% black/African-American, according to the 2000 census). Clever, huh? I decided to play dumb and asked my “friend” why she referred to my hometown by such a moniker. I wrote one her facebook wall the following message:
“Er…why do you call Memphis ‘Memfrica’?”
Innocent enough, right? My message was later deleted from her wall and I received the following message in my facebook mailbox:
“I am sorry if that offends you. It’s what we call it around here. You have your beliefs and I have mine. There are stereotypes for reasons, and Memphis = not the safest of cities esp. for single white females.
We’ll leave it at that.”
Interestingly enough, I never mentioned anything about being offended. Nor did I mention anything about my personal beliefs on Memphis or even Africa, for that matter. By golly, what could she mean by beliefs? And even on top of all of that, what the hell does a stupid racist nickname have to do with personal safety of whites in Memphis or Africa? I wanted her to just come out and say “I call it that because it’s full of n*ggers.” Instead she danced around the issue and couldn’t just tell me the truth. Why? Because I am black and she is white. It’s what clearly divided us, and it was a reminder of what unfortunately always will.
So bearing this in mind, I have to say, sometimes I still have this mini-intensity, this paranoia, this propensity for overanalyzing, this fear that someone who is my friend or my coworker or my partner, if different from me, may be thinking things he or she will never say until something somehow slips. I am hoping to eventually grow out of it or at least develop an ability to ignore the side of myself that makes me think of all these things. Maybe I will one day gain the maturity that older people of color have that allows them to filter out all the extra noise in their brains that makes them recall racism, so that they can just function without breaking down. But for now, it’s an intensity I am cursed with and that I am dealing with one day at a time.
Related Post – Anti-Racist Parent: The Racism Radar