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.