This story is about the racism of not seeing color, of not listening, or of listening but not hearing. My racism. Well, one of my known racist behaviors that I hope to correct—hope I am correcting.
In 2015, I was consulting with OurHealth, often on-site in their downtown office. The engineering team, and the wider IT department, got along well, and so we regularly walked to lunch together; oftentimes after haggling over where to get lunch for entirely too long. As you do.
One day after probably a bit too much haggling, we took off for lunch in a bit of a hurry. There were a handful of us, including Andrew Robinson III, a man I’m lucky enough to call a friend, who gave great hugs pre-Covid-19, and was our Director of Software and Product at OurHealth. He is also Black.
We’re hungry. Ya know? I think we had a joke about the privilege of this type of hunger, that office-worker, wow-it’s-past-noon-and-I’m-still-in-my-office-chair kind of hunger. We were hungry. So we rushed out of the building, speed-walked to the crosswalk, saw no cars headed toward the intersection, and so crossed against the light.
Well, most of us crossed against the light. Andrew stopped.
“What the hell are y’all doing?”
“We’re hungry, man! Let’s go!”
Andrew waited, and he caught up later after the light changed. He said there was a police officer sitting near the intersection.
“Are you worried you’ll get a jaywalking ticket?”
“Man. The way I was raised, you do not do anything to give a police officer an excuse to talk to you. Ever.”
I’ll be honest: I laughed. Because that’s ancient history, right? Plus now he’s Andrew. He’s highly capable, highly respected, our Director. Anyone can see that, right?
So I laughed it off and we went to lunch. We might’ve discussed it a bit further over our burgers, but mostly I think I communicated a sort of casual dismissal. It did stick with me, though. I’ve told this story to others. I’m not sure why, exactly. To gauge their reaction? In hopes that they’d assure me it’s not like that anymore? Or to feel some comfort in others reacting the same as I did?
Regardless, I’m pretty confident I was being racist.
That I didn’t listen is obvious. I was dismissive of an experience of his related to the color of his skin and of those who raised him and with whom he was raised. I think this is related to the racism of claiming to “not see color”. I diminished and dismissed the differences in his experiences that are directly related to his being Black. If racist power is to be diminished, racist policies rolled back, and racist ideas purged, we cannot not see color. In fact, we must see it, and listen to the experiences that have resulted from it.
One person I have talked to about this said, “Miles, don’t call yourself racist. I want to call out the real racists. You’re just an optimist,” which I really appreciate. However, Robin Diangelo says in White Fragility that a pillar of white fragility is the refusal to know. I think this and other similar manifestations of white fragility have to be illuminated and rooted out if the people of the United States, the people of my state, and the people of my local communities are going to effect change.
So call it racist behavior, from the racist idea that those with power and authority can’t be baised against Black people anymore. It’s like I didn’t bother really listening to Rage Against the Machine.
I have to change. I owe it to Andrew, I think. I owe it to the various communities with which I’m involved in tech in Indianapolis, my company, my colleagues. I owe it to my kids. I owe it to myself.
What am I doing? Well, first I’m reading. How To Be An Antiracist first, White Fragility, then So You Want To Talk About Race. Recommend me something!
I donated personally to a cause, though that feels a bit like buying a gift card for someone’s birthday. I worry that it implies, “I don’t know you or don’t care enough to get you a personalized gift.”
(For the record, I actually enjoy getting gift cards. I feel guilt about giving them, not receiving. So if you’re reading this and you’ve given me a gift card at some point, I definitely appreciated it. In particular, to my mother– and father-in-law, Starbucks gift cards help to keep my marriage happy because Melissa won’t be as upset at the Starbucks budget number at the end of the month. Haha.)
A person quoted in White Fragility says, of the scenario in which he, a Black man, can engage a white person in a calm discussion of how their behavior was racially problematic, and that white person listens, tries to understand, and tries to learn how to get better instead of becoming defensive and offended, that it would be “revolutionary”. Us trying to be better can be revolutionary. Seems like a low bar, doesn’t it?
If you’re reading this, and you’re white, clear that bar. Ask yourself how you can be better—identify your racist behaviors, listen more, stop avoiding the topic of racism, especially your own.
I am trying to teach my kids more about the inequities Black people face regularly. I gotta teach them to myself, first, though. My daughter made a sign that read, “Be Better, Police!” for our neighborhood demonstrations. I hope we can all agree with her sentiment. Many of us can stand to Be Better.