“Well, I don’t know,” she said. We were sitting in the middle of the library, studying for midterms. I was a senior in high school in the middle of an all white, Ohio town. I knew what she was going to say, but what she said first seemed to excuse it.
“I’m not trying to be racist, but I just don’t feel safe around black men. It’s nothing against them.” She shrugged,”that’s why I never go into Canton alone. You never know.”
I looked up at her for moment, but decided to excuse the behavior. It was an everyday occurrence, and a phrase that in my mind meant “well”. She knew what she was saying, and that didn’t make her a bad person? That didn’t mean she was being racist, she just…was.
To be honest, this wasn’t a phrase I thought a lot about until college when the Campus Democrats hosted a Black Lives Matter-focused meeting. It was brought up as a talking point, and I remember slinking back in my chair. I thought about the girl in the library. By nodding along like it was fine, I had validated her behavior. That made me just as bad.
In high school, phrases and jokes along these lines weren’t uncommon. I once got in a spat with a friend after telling another girl, the only black girl in our class, about a racist joke that one of the boys had made. The person who made it was furious with me- but only because he had been caught. “That’s not how I am,” he said,” and I can’t believe you told her.”
“Of course, I told her,” I said,”if she can’t be in the room when it’s being made, then how is it okay at all?”
People from my generation are taught about racism in schools like it’s another concept. The 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s all over. Racism isn’t real in the United States today ― people are equal. From what I’ve seen, for the most part, people are actually fearful of being racist. It’s the big “R-word” that no one feels comfortable with. Accusing someone of being a racist is a huge offense today ― and yet most people being accused are. It doesn’t matter how many times “I didn’t mean it” and “I’m not like that” are thrown around. You are.
I am too, occasionally. Like I said before, I grew up with jokes like that in school. A group of boys I used to hang out with repeatedly pointed at every black man and said, “LeBron, is that you?”
This isn’t your grandmothers racism. Today, it has nothing to do with signs that say colored, and everything to do with not recognizing the systemic differences that black Americans, Muslims, hispanics, and other people face. Most of the time, it’s not calling someone a “nigger” or a “faggot” but instead talking about how rap music is crude and disgusting while listening to a white man in a big hat talk about having sex in the back of a truck. Racism is not “black schools” and “white schools” but instead socioeconomic difference that determine quality of education. Racism is doing The Lion King with an entirely white cast, at a predominately-white school, and then claiming that it’s not cultural appropriation (even though the integrity of theater like the Lion King and Hamilton emphasizes that it’s done with ethnic minorities). Racism is white men claiming victimization when they are called “racist” instead of simply acknowledging that they were incorrect, or saying that peaceful kneeling in front of the flag is wrong while supporting white, pro-lifers who hold signs with dead baby parts on the side of the road.
Racism is me, letting that girl tell me that black people are dangerous but ending it with “but I’m not racist.”