I might’ve lost a friend this week. At the absolute least, I’m pretty sure I offended a friend, which bums me out because I really like and respect this friend.
I really want to fix it, so I’m heading out on a fragile limb to try.
It all started with an email chain. I was cranking about social media (outside of socializing with friends and family) being the demise of critical thought at this time in America.
My friend emailed back that social media was exposing things like hidden racism in our society, which is a positive. Myself, I’ve been frustrated with most of our public discourse, most especially our current one about race.
I wrote back that holding racist viewpoints wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker for me — growing up I had racist relatives who I love and respect, so it’s hard to outright condemn them, though it is right to outright condemn violations of rights based on race.
There’s a line to be drawn somewhere between having or expressing racist tendencies and marching in the streets carrying Tiki torches and shouting Nazi slogans. Neither is ideal, but we’ve got to co-exist and evolve with one as we condemn the other.
Up here in Maine I’ve been warned more than once that so-and-so is racist — Mainers are so polite and apologetic when introducing those kind of relatives or family friends. Usually it turns out the person grew up in a household with parents who expressed racist views or has had little experience with people of different races.
Sometimes, the racist in question had a bad experience with someone of a different race and applied the resulting feelings to a whole race. I try to find funny ways to point out that white people do bad things, too.
Once someone told me his racism went back to serving in the military in Korea. He said the black guys always hung out together between engagements, and they were always laughing and seeming to have too good a time. Their conduct seemed suspect.
I said black people in America had been laughing and singing their way through all sorts of hells for centuries now. Joining the circle to see what was so funny would’ve been better than making himself miserable watching and wondering.
I have a race-based prejudice of my own, and I know it’s completely wrong. I apologize up front, but I struggle with a prejudice against white people with dreadlocks.
It’s not like I want to see rights violated or anything, but, honestly and wrongly, were I an employer, I might have a hard time hiring a white person with dreadlocks.
Worse, it’s wrong to occasionally bring up my prejudice to garner laughs — which my take on the subject almost always does — but I do it every once in a while anyway.
Again, my apologies to all the dreadlocked white people out there.
Point being, we need to broaden our discussion about prejudicing based on superficial measures, because it’s something we all need to work to evolve beyond. White vs. nonwhite racism is only one of those measures.
Like, there’s a gap in my smile. Adequate dental care for myself went on the “someday” list for this financially compromised single mom, and government insurance only paid for extractions.
I look down or cover my mouth when I smile, but sometimes I forget.
I forgot at a job interview, and I watched the interviewer’s face change upon noticing the gap — the look can best be described as a slight wince. It’s similar to the wince of someone reacting negatively to my skin tone upon seeing me.
Similar to the wince I feel my face make when I see a white person in dreadlocks.
The job involved working with the public, and I worried as I left the interview that the wince meant I wouldn’t get the job. I wanted to blurt out that I promise I’ll remember not to show my gap when I’m working.
I didn’t get the job. I can’t say for a fact the missing tooth was the reason, but it was hard not to feel that way or feel the shame of not having the means to maintain that picture perfect smile polite society requires.
Funny thing is, that white interviewer didn’t wince at all at the sight of my skin and has probably never uttered a racist sentiment. As those racist relatives that polite folk are loathe to introduce?
They usually don’t bat an eye when they see a gap in a smile.
I remember learning somewhere that our tendency to make superficial judgments goes back to our primitive roots — to different times when making snap judgments about the being or creature approaching you could be life or death. There are probably still wildernesses and war zones where such snap judgments still make sense.
Our communities and social media spaces are not such places, and it’s time for all of us to learn to stop acting like they are.