Recently I was in the hospital in my hometown, thinking I might have Covid-19. While I was waiting for test results in the emergency room I wanted to use the washroom, but I was told by the nurse I would have to use a commode. I really did not know what a commode was. I kept thinking of a bedpan. That did not seem too attractive to me. I whined. The nurse was firm. I decided to try to wait it out, hoping at the time I would be able to go home soon. So I told the nurse I would wait it out.
Jimmie overheard me. He was the guy who would have to clean the washroom each time it was used. No one’s favourite job. Jimmie did not know me; he just heard me schlemming and he graciously offered to let me use the washroom and clean it after I was done. He had no reason to do that. He was just being kind, to an overly fastidious old man. But he was really taking a serious risk. Washrooms used by Covid-19 patients are dangerous places. Oh by the way, did I mention that Jimmie was black?
Jimmie all I can say is, my bad. Later, as soon as I thought about what he had done for me, I felt guilty. As I should have felt guilty. I earned the guilt. The second day in the hospital I bucked up and used a commode and found it was not so bad at all. I had been a big baby. And yet Jimmie took a chance he need not have taken. Why did he do it?
We live in a system of systemic racism. Whites, like me, don’t think we are racists. We are good people aren’t we? After all there are not many insults worse than being called racists. We can’t admit that about ourselves. But we live in a system that routinely and automatically advantages whites while denying those same advantages to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, indigenous people, and other groups. Most of us whites never think about that. We don’t see the water in which we swim. We don’t want to see those advantages, but that does not make them any less real. There is ample evidence that whites enjoy those advantages while other racial groups are denied those advantages.
Frankly, when I think about Jimmie and how I unthinkingly exposed him to an entirely unnecessary risk I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I revealed myself as a person who would take advantage of a system of systemic racism for a minor advantage to me, and an unnecessary risk to Jimmie. That’s racism. And frankly it happens all the time and that does not make it right. I hope that I learned from the experience.
I was a racist; and most of us whites are too.
6 thoughts on “I am a racist!”
methinks thou dost protest too much.
subconscious/unconscious racial orientation, maybe. racist no.
the issue was really excreta, illness, age, publicity, fear of death, etc.
This is a very important issue and on this one I think you are wrong. We white people who are privileged by a racist system are usually blind to the privileges we enjoy. We are blind because we see those privileges as natural and earned. We deserve them. But if we look closely we must see that if we participate in a racist system and benefit from it, and do not dissent from that system, we are complicit. We are aiding and abetting racism to our own advantage. That is racism. No one including me, likes to admit to being a racist. But we have to look at ourselves clearly, fairly, and without bias. And if we do that, we may see something we don’t like. I am trying in my small way to do that. I hate the thought that I might be a racist. That is about the worst thing I can say about myself. I hope I am better than that. But on this day, on this occasion I accepted the privilege. Of course, had Jimmie been white, I would have also have accepted it, but that does not change my character. All I can say to defend myself, is that I hope I will do better. I will try hard to do better next time. But I have a lot to learn. As we all know, after Minneapolis, this issue is very important. I intend to continue blogging on this subject. I think each of us has a duty to speak out. We have to express our dissent. We have to denounce racism in all its forms. If we don’t do that we are guilty. Methinks I do not protest enough!
I agree John. White people especially from European backgrounds have been socially conditioned in North America to be racist for hundreds of years. The conditioning is so subtle and pervasive that we already know by age 5 or 6 which people our family approves of and which to avoid and yet for most of us it remains an unconscious bias. Education and new means of communication especially social media now makes it painfully clear. The realization is hard to take especially when one is old but we can change and we should. We should support young people who want change both in the United States and Canada and add our voices to theirs when they demand reform.
I think you are exactly right. We all have to do better. Unconscious racism is often the worst kind exactly because it is not obvious.
Appreciate the earlier comments. I’d add that many who see themselves as, and genuinely intend to live as, non-racist–or even an anti-racist–have an obscured awareness of racism and how embedded and normalized a part of our racially-priviledged lives it is.
Take the most obscure example: Any man who has spat his chewing gum into a public urinal has experienced and contributed to this entrenched enabling of racial or racial/economic bias.
Well, he (the spitter) obviously doesn’t have to pick that wad of gum out of the urine… nor, we surmise, does his son, or his dad. But someone’s son, or someone’s dad, or indeed someone’s mom will have to. In our society, that someone is likely to be a person who, for some arbitrary but long-standing reason, is much more likely to have that disgusting, low-paid job. So, we spit, we zip, we walk away and others–we know not who–arrive like little pine-scented elves to clean it up. How nice for us. Are we racists? No, probably not, but… like Hans’ Jimmy situation, we rely on the racially-grounded system to let us spit (etc.) with impunity and feeling no moral culpability.
Our racist society allows “untouchable” style jobs to exist, hidden in plain sight.
In a reverse-image world, perhaps an undesirable job like urinal custodian would be highly paid and well-pensioned! Just incentive: Money and/or social recognition would be the compensation for such a wretched, unhealthy, nose-wrinkling occupation… Or perhaps, in a fair world, we’d ALL have to take a turn with the rubber gloves on, spending one day a month out figuratively “washing feet” to give the topic a biblical slant, for those high-brows who don’t even like talking about pee-pee. (Never mind swirling your fingers around in there.)
My guess is the incidence of discarded urinal gum would go way down.
It’s good for us lucky pink folks to try to see these instances of life-long racial bias. It’s hard though because we are on the sunny side of it. As are so many of the people we most love, respect and revere. Until we all intermingle, intermarry, interfriend, interparent, interemploy, inter-everything, and connect with love, respect and reverence with those we could now call “them” with more than grammatical correctness, racism will continue as a way of life.
You are very wise and yes I don’t want to think about my fingers swirling around in there. Now during a pandemic I think we are starting to realize how underpaid some of these “essential jobs” are. How can that be fair? it is hard for us to see the unfairness when we are the ones unfairly benefiting. And that is exactly the problem. Good to hear from you good sir!