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Casual Racism, or, How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Stop Being Racist

Tuesday, Aug 22, 2017


Do you remember when I posted on Facebook that I was having trouble parsing the events starting in Charlottesville and going on into our so-called president's statements on the subject, but I was absolutely certain that the Robert E. Lee statue had to come down and replaced with a memorial to Heather Heyer?

I remember that, and now I have sorted through my feelings, collected my thoughts, and come to understand the story I needed to tell.

You don't understand racism as well as you think you do

Believe it or not, this is on "many sides, many sides". Let me explain.

Growing up, my parents were very much anti-racist and they taught me that neo-Nazis and white supremicists and the hatred they espouse have no place in American society, or any other free society. It's not that hard to understand that anybody who advocates genocide for any reason is a bad person. It's really not that difficult to say that denying any group access to our free society because you don't like their color, church, or gender is downright wrong. And I know this because my parents taught my three-year-old brain these ideas, and I had more trouble understanding why anybody would disagree with them than understanding the ideas themselves. Naturally, I later expanded my concept of these protected groups as I developed the maturity and knowledge of the existence of homosexuals, transgender people, and so forth. You get the idea. I'm a raving liberal. But would you like to know the backdrop for learning these things? First Laughlin, and later, Luke Air Force Base, in the '70s and early '80s.

Now, any organization as large as the military in America will tend to reflect the demographics of its population. As a result, unsurprisingly, the Air Force is a predominately white service. There's nothing inherently bad about that, of course. And as humans, probably due to a survival need in prehistoric times, we tend to sort ourselves into groups of "us vs them". We also reap the benefits of doing so. Just look at your smart phone and ask if any lone lion would have been able to make such a thing. So we get some wonderful rivalries out of the deal, too, like Air Force vs Army, UT vs OU, USA vs EU, and so forth. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that. Yet, that same tendency to self-sort into groups of "us vs them" also results in things like the Cold War, World War II, terrorists and the war against them, and neo-Nazis. But what it means to me, personally, is that I grew up in a predominately white world. The Air Force base, the elementary school, and even my group of friends.

Later in life, as a teenager, I self-sorted into the "nerds vs jocks" group by identifying as a nerd. This is in the period of time where Revenge of the Nerds was a current event, mind you. And yet again, I had sorted myself into a predominately white group of "us vs them", where in many places, the jock group is predominately black, but the small town we had moved to after Dad left the Air Force didn't like black people being on the High School football team. Since I was insulated by a predominately white world, I didn't know that that had happened on the football team.

So for all of my years growing up, I did what many white people do. I condemned racism and patted myself on the back for doing so and generally being a good person. I didn't have any racist friends because we actively ejected such people out of our group when they showed up. I didn't have any homophobic friends for the same reason, and they're a lot easier to eject: just hit on them, if you're the same gender as they are. It works every time. In the summer of 1993, I graduated from high school, patted myself on the back for appreciating all of the ethnic minority people who graduated with me, moved to Austin, and entered the work force and went to work at Fastburger.

About a year and a half later, I had managed to acquire a particular debt that I knew was going to follow me around and hurt me if I didn't pay it off, and I resolved to get a second job and pay the piper as quickly as possible. I went to work at a different Fastburger belonging to a different franchise. It was an easy job to get. I had a year and a half's worth of experience already at a place with a much bigger menu and higher volume. The place was within walking distance of my home and needed someone to work evenings. It's a match, right?

Then I walked in to my first day of work and started a week of hell. You see, I was one of two white people that worked there. I believe there was at least one Hispanic as well, but my memory is failing me on that. All the rest of the staff, including all of the managers, were black. So I walked in, patted myself on the back for not being racist, and proceeded to be racist. I didn't see that coming at all.

At the end of the first week, I went home and considered my situation. I hated my job. The people I worked with made fun of me in a language I didn't understand, even though it sounded like English, and I didn't even know when they were making fun of me. They listened to music that I had always hated, because hip-hop and gangsta rap didn't make sense. In this environment, I only had one person who understood me when I talked and who I understood when he talked. I was lonely, isolated, and frustrated with my new job. I again patted myself on the back for not being racist.

Then the hair on the back of my neck signaled the growing fear inside of me. It was irrational for me to be afraid in that moment, and yet it was happening. I had never felt fear like that before. It was mortal fear, or fear of losing a job. It was self-directed; I was afraid of myself.

Then it started.

Completely unbid, my life started to flash before my eyes. I saw Chauncey, my friend in elementary school, who talked like a white guy, made jokes about niggers, but was himself black. I remembered that at that time, neither of us knew what a nigger was supposed to be, we simply had a common friend whose dad was actively teaching him to hate niggers. We figured we should hate them too, and as soon as we figured out what constituted a "nigger", we would hate that person. My fear started to turn to horror as I looked at my time in El Paso, when I went to a predominately Hispanic elementary school and I remembered how much I hated only having two white friends because they were the only other white people in my grade. It was like the montage in The Karate Kid, only it didn't have as many black people in it as the movie did. I looked at my high school Dungeons and Dragons group, as white as Tom Sawyer's fence, and briefly asked why we had patted ourselves on the back for not being racist.

My visions shifted, focusing on school activities where we debated censorship, free speech, freedom of religion, and the Great Satanic Moral Panic that was still going on around us. I saw myself defending heavy metal bands for their lyrical choices. The field of heavy metal, in case you hadn't noticed, is predominately white. I was defending the rights of white people. When Ice T came out with Cop Killer, I defended his right to free speech and patted myself on the back for not being racist. I still haven't heard the song. Then I watched my friends, mostly white but never black, speak out against Ice T after defending Iron Maiden in the same breath. The difference between Ice T and Iron Maiden should be obvious. And my friends patted themselves on the back for not being racist.

I wasn't done, as there was still a final field of view coming into focus. I walked out of the church when I was twelve and have never looked back. In a small conservative town, that attracted death threats, people telling me to kill myself, and overall ostracization. I saw my old church friends tell me that I can't be their friend anymore. I watched a high school D&D friend tell me that he supports me being an atheist, "just don't tell anybody I said that". I watched as my social circle in early high school dwindled to just one person. One white person, yet he was the only friend who would speak up and defend my choice to leave the church.

I felt the frustration that comes when nobody likes you because you're a minority, while knowing that nobody will speak up for you. You have to stand up for yourself and for what you believe. Freedom isn't a gift, it's a fight that we all have to have every single day. And I had a heart-shaped hole in my chest that I didn't even know was there.

The regretful tears started to flow, and the understanding started to dawn.

If I quit that job at that time, then there was something I would never again be able to say about myself: "I am not a racist."

But the visions still weren't done. They shifted to showing Youtube clips of my work week. I saw myself being made fun of for not understanding plain English, and I finally got the joke. I saw good people having a good time at work. I heard music that was actually quite musical. As my white background got its judgmental ass out of my way, I began to understand. Not much, of course, but it was a beginning.

I knew what I had to do next, and if you've read down this far, so do you. I had to go back to work. I had to listen to the music and appreciate it for what it is. I had to talk to my coworkers and get to know them. I had to learn their language. When I went back to work for my second week at my new job, I took in with it the determination that I would never be a racist, and the understanding that the only way to do that was to learn about my new coworkers.

The following six months were some of the most fun of my life. I never developed a strong liking of hip-hop, but I did definitely develop an appreciation for it and an understanding for the culture that developed it. Likewise, my new coworkers developed an appreciation for the heavy metal music I love so much, especially considering all of the anti-racism that's intrinsic to the field, even if they didn't develop a strong liking of it. The cultural exchange had happened, and we were all better for it. I found out that my coworkers were happy to accomodate a gay coworker, and we had common ground. They loved to joke around, I love to joke around, and we had common ground. I also started to learn what it's like to grow up and live while being black. I heard stories about run-ins with the cops, and every single person there that was black had a story about a relative who had been beaten or killed by a cop. And the lack of common ground on that one weighs heavily on me every time I read a report about another unarmed black person, usually male, being gunned down by the police.

In the wake of what happened at Charlottesville and the comments made by the Idiot in Chief, I have to remember that we live in a society that puts a great deal of effort into making everybody racist. Even those of us who grow up being taught that anti-racism and anti-hate are the only acceptable ways to live can become racist. If you think that "reverse racism" is a thing, but that you're not racist, congratulations, you are a racist. If you think that poor people, predominately black and other ethnic minorities, are responsible for getting themselves out of poverty, you are a racist. If you honestly believe that cops aren't targetting black people and other ethnic minorities and you've never seen the inside of a jail, then you are a racist.

All those years ago, in that part-time job, I started a journey that would lead me to one inescapable conclusion: as a group, white people must spend every day being constantly vigilant to any signs that we have developed any racist trait, and we must correct those traits when we identify them. We must speak up against racism in all of it's insidious forms, both big and small. We must make an effort to self-sort ourselves into groups that love other groups, even when engaging in friendly rivalry, and work to cross cultural boundaries and engage in cultural exchange.

We need to remember the wise words given to us by a black guy: I'm looking at the man in the mirror, and I'm asking him to change his ways.

I didn't know Heather Heyer personally, but I still insist that she be given the memorial for doing the thing that so many white people fail to do: speak up.

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This comic features adult language and some adult topics. If you feel like you are not adult enough to read this comic, please don't waste my time telling me that.

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