Some while back, someone on Quora (a question and answer site on which I’m quite active) asked a question about encounters with racism and white privilege.
I told the story of something that happened to Eve and me at a Walmart in Florida. We were standing in a checkout line with about five people in front of us, when the cashier pulled us out of line. We thought she was opening a new register, but instead, she just brought us to the front of the line and rang us up. It was a little confusing, and it took a few minutes to register: we were the only white people in line.
This is, I think, a fairly typical example of everyday racism. There’s nothing particularly weird or unusual about it; it’s just part of the background institutional racism of life in the United States, one of the many small acts of racism that normalize racism on a larger scale.
What I didn’t expect, and did find deeply weird, was the way people reacted to this story.
This, I think, is very strange. It’s also very telling.
There are lessons in both the event and the responses to it, I think. Both Eve and I didn’t recognize what was going on at the time it happened. As she wrote,
It was crowded and noisy. It happened really fast. We were stressed and distracted. Have you ever had someone pull you out of line because they were opening a new register? At first we thought that was what was happening. […] We weren’t even sure if everyone standing around us was actually in line. There was a lot of information to take in and respond to at once.
It was only after we checked out and were halfway to the exit that we looked around and realized that she was the only cashier open in her area and that the people around us had in fact all been in line – and were still there.
I mean yeah. We felt like idiots afterward for not realizing sooner what was going on. I certainly hope the experience will help us be more aware in the future if we encounter this shit again.
Neither of us recognized what was happening at the time, but we’re now more aware of this kind of thing, and we’re not likely to be taken by surprise in the future.
So that’s the first lesson: sometimes, white privilege means being completely unaware of casual acts of everyday racism even when you’re right in the middle of them.
The second lesson, though, is more interesting: it has become very, very common for people who are confronted with something uncomfortable to deny that it exists. And that’s troubling.
To be fair, this is not limited only to racism. The same thing happened whenever people talk about any kind of topic where there’s likely to be disagreement. I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere about the hysteria around GM food and how the machinery of fear of GM food is totally devoid of empirical evidence, and as sure as night follows day, every time I do, someone will reach into the attic of argumentative fallacy and haul out the tired old “you don’t believe that, you’re just being paid to say it” trope. It’s happened both on Quora and, when a blog post about GM food made it to Reddit, on Reddit:
It hasn’t always been this way. This reflexive, instantaneous denial–“You had an experience that makes me uncomfortable; I will refuse to believe it occurred,” “You hold an idea I disagree with; you do not really believe what you’re saying”–is new (at least to me).
Denial as an argumentative tactic isn’t new, of course, but the fact that so many people reach for it as the very first response is.
This happens in politics (“You support Hillary, that’s the only reason you’re saying Jill Stein is pandering to pseudoscience”), in technology, in everything. It’s pervasive. And it’s gaslighting. It’s built on the assumption that a person can tell you what your experiences were, what you believe or don’t believe, all because he doesn’t much like what you’re saying. (I say “he” because with only one exception, all the responses I’ve screen captured above were from men.)
But when it comes to experiences of racism, it seems particularly deeply rooted.
I’m not sure if that’s white discomfort at the idea of their own privilege, or if it comes from the fact that so many Americans truly want to believe that the election of a black President means we’re living in a post-racial society, or what it is, but it’s bizarre. What happened to Eve and me in Walmart isn’t even that egregious an example. It’s not like, just to use a random hypothetical that of course would never happen in real life, an unarmed black man was shot dead by police for doing nothing in particular.
Yet people really, really want to believe that it simply never happened–that it would not happen. They seem incredibly invested in that belief.
I would like to think that, had I been waiting in that line and seen what happened, I would raise a stink about that.
But here’s the thing: I am white. I was born into a system that privileged me. I have never been on the receiving end of structural racism. If someone were to be brought in front of me in line, of course I would raise a stink about it; being able to raise a stink is part of my privilege. Many folks on Quora expressed surprise that none of the people in the line spoke up, but that’s part of the problem. Being allowed to speak up about racism is not a privilege that those on the receiving end are permitted.
On Quora, several folks made exactly this point:
Talking about privilege is difficult, because a lot of folks who hold some kind of privilege (white privilege, male privilege, whatever) take the conversation as an affront. It’s not always clear what we’re supposed to do with the knowledge that we have these social privileges we didn’t ask for, whether we want them or not.
I’ve heard folks become defensive and say things like “are you telling me I should feel guilty for being white?” or “are you telling me I didn’t work for the things I have?”
And the answer is no, of course not. That’s not the point at all. The point is to recognize these structures, so that you can point them out and you can help level the playing field for everyone.
Had someone in that line objected, he probably would have been seen as just another angry black person. Had we objected, that would have been a whole different ball o’ wax. This video illustrates this nicely:
The right thing to do, had we recognized what was happening, would be to say “Excuse me, these people were in line first, why are you bringing us to the front?”
The wrong thing for us to do (which was what we did) was to be so unaware of what was happening that we simply allowed it to happen. The wrong thing for other people to do was to tell us that it never happened at all.
Of course, all this happens because racism is still a real and genuine thing, openly embraced by far more people than we are comfortable admitting (including, it must be said, a certain current Presidential candidate). Not everyone on Quora denied our experience. At least one person celebrated it. I’ll leave you with this gem: