I remember attending a party, a get-together, maybe I was just out at the bar. A few days later, I was talking with a friend, and he was asking if I knew someone there. “He had short hair, a white t-shirt…” the descriptions kept going, and literally they could describe half the people in the room. So finally I asked, “The Black guy?”
My friend got flustered and didn’t know what to say. Finally he stammered, “Yeah.”
I shrugged and said, yeah, I knew him, and said his name. End of story.
Except it isn’t, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how I’ve been racialized, how I’ve been shaped as a white man, how as a white man I’ve made mistakes that have hurt the people of color around me, that I’ve done things I thought were right that were actually pretty racist.
So why did my friend feel so horrified to fully describe that person as Black?
On the surface, as another white person, I’m sure he felt that if he acknowledged a Black person’s race that he would be doing something racist–it’s bad to describe people based upon their race. But that’s wrong: race is as valid a descriptor as height, hair color, or if he has hair at all. It isn’t until we make assumptions based upon race that it turns into prejudice, and it isn’t until that prejudice turns into action that it becomes discrimination.
But the fact that he couldn’t say, “He was Black,” screams of racism.
Think of it like this: What if instead of being Black, the man had done something embarrassing that would’ve immediately made his identity known. Maybe he’d dripped cheese dip on his sweater. Maybe he forgot to zip his fly. Maybe he came overdressed to a casual party. To call him out on any of these things would be describing him according to a fact that we perceive as embarrassing, as impolite to mention, as undesirable and inferior.
So we wouldn’t say, “He spilled wine on his pants,” because that would be rude, so when we refuse to name his race, when we refuse to acknowledge his Blackness, then what’s the unspoken conclusion we’re creating about what it means to be Black?
That being Black is undesirable and inferior.
Erasing parts of his identity to appear in-offensive implies there’s something offensive about the part of his identity we’re erasing. When we ignore race, when we refuse to see race, when we insist we’re colorblind, we’re perpetrating racism by stifling the conversation. By implying that just acknowledging someone’s race is calling them out for being something bad.
Moments like this bubble up for me all the time. Small bits of memory that seep into my awareness at odd moments throughout the day, while I’m watching something on TV, reading a book, hanging out with friends. They’re innocuous moments, the sort of filler that’s too bland, too real to ever be captured in cinema or script. Yet something about those moments riled me inside, left me unsettled and questioning: Why? Why did I react like that? Why did he?
It’s uncomfortable, I’ll admit, but maybe I’m a masochist: Examining that discomfort feels meaningful, feels significant. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know the solutions to the problems we’re facing, but maybe by looking back at these instances of cognitive dissonance, I can discover something about myself, something about the world I’m living in.
So, yeah, he was the Black guy. Why couldn’t we just say that from the start?