Thursday, July 22, 2004
"Am I Racist For Not Wanting To Appear Racist?" 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Milbarge at Begging the Question (guest-blogging at Crescat Sententia) brings up this important issue of social decorum: is it racist for a white person to consciously take steps to not appear racist in public? Here's the scenario:
I live in a city with a fairly sizeable black population, especially in the area between my home and office. I walk to work, so it's not at all uncommon for me to pass several black people in those few blocks. My office is on a different street than my home, so at some point in my walk I have to cross the street. Also, I use a canvas briefcase-style bag with a shoulder strap. Depending on the material of what I'm wearing, and what I've packed in the bag, and how slumped I am that day, sometimes it slips down my shoulder and requires an occasional hoist. Oh, and by the way, I'm white.

This situation happens to me quite a bit: I'm walking to work, and either (1) the street lights change in a way that makes this a convenient point to cross the street, (2) the bag starts to slip a little, or (3) both. But I notice a black person walking down the block towards me. So, I consciously avoid either crossing the street or hiking my bag up so as not to appear like I'm acting out of fear of the black person. I especially find myself doing this (or rather, not doing it) when the other person is a youngish black man. Maybe I should also point out that I'm male (I think a woman clutching her purse closer to her looks different than a man doing the same with a briefcase), and I don't appear nervous or skittish when encountered by strangers on the street. [read full post]
I found the question intriguing, because I frequently find myself in similar situations here in Chicago, and I think it's even hard to talk about the subject without saying something that comes across as racist. That makes it a tough question to answer, because it's something of a "Catch-22." You may be perceived as racist regardless of what external action you take.

Which brings me to this point: these common scenarios involve "racism by way of perception" by the observer as well as the observed. Is it not also "a bit racist" for a Black person to assume that a white person's actions (say, hitching up their bag or crossing the street) are in reaction to - and fear of - their presence and skin color, rather than actions taken for other, innocuous reasons? As Milbarge says, what if my bag is slipping and I just want to adjust it? What if it's just a convenient time to cross the street?

That's the crux of the problem. Many Black people have undoubtedly had the experience of observing fearful individuals cross the street or clutching their handbags closely before, and it's difficult to know the internal motivations of any person that's crossing your path. If you've been a target of these actions in a racially-motivated context, it's deeply traumatic - and it would be natural and somewhat justified to assume that a white person's hitch-of-the-shoulder-bag means contains an insidious wealth of meaning.

I suppose the best we can do is speak frankly of the issues, and be conscious of our own motivations regardless of our race or gender. Milbarge's post - and the subsequent discussions - are a good example of this healthy consciousness-building.

Sometimes a hitch of the bag is just a hitch of the bag, and nothing more.