To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Briton32 sez:

"I think that there are just as many racist black people as there are white."

People who know me tend to confide in me, oddly enough, and ask me to help them understand stuff. Years ago I worked with a black woman named Tonya. She came in to work one day hopping mad, I knew because I could hear the tone of her voice as she complained to our coworkers, and eventually she came into my office and told me her story.

Tonya had gone to see a new doctor - a cardiologist, maybe - and the minute she walked in the door the receptionist snapped, "We don't take TennCare."

"I don't have TennCare," Tonya said, "I have insurance on my job." (By the way, other black coworkers have told the same story at different times.)

So in my office, Tonya asked, "Why did she say that to me?"

In answer, I told Tonya that while I do not see racists behind every tree, and while I think in general people are better off giving other people the benefit of the doubt, in this case it seemed pretty clear that the receptionist saw a black woman walk into the waiting room and thought "welfare queen". Racism, Tonya. Sorry you had to experience that.

"But the receptionist was black!" Tonya objected.

Okay, I know there is a school of thought that black people cannot be racists. I do not subscribe to it. I think there are no vices and no virtues that white people are capable of, that black people are not also capable of. (The CF and I talked about this concept last weekend, in terms of men and women.) To say otherwise is to reduce black people to the level of children or animals.

I've been struggling to find a definition of racism that works for me. What I've come up with so far can also apply to sexism, ageism, etc.

1 - A group of people is identified. This can be an arbitrary group, like "old folks", or a well-defined group, like "people over 65". So far we are OK.
2 - Attributes are assigned to the group. Now we are not OK, because -
3 - These attributes are now assumed to apply to members of the group without checking to see if they are appropriate or not.

And the attributes do not have to be negative. It is not negative, for instance, to have a sense of rhythm. Tell a black person that you are not surprised he is a good dancer b/c black people have rhythm, and see where that gets you. No one likes to be pigeonholed.

You can also be that way about a group of which you are a member; either because you think you are an exception, or because you label yourself too.

The reason I'm not happy with this definition is this: my FIL had a few dizzy spells a while back, and I recommended that he check with his doctor about his blood pressure medication. Because I've seen some "old folks" actually pass out due to the fact that as they aged, the medication became too much. Sure enough, when he complained to the doctor about his dizzyness, the doctor cut back his BP meds. We know that people start needing a little help with close-up vision starting at around age 40. That's not "ageist" is it? Is it racist to say that black women need to care for their hair differently than white women do?

Having trouble coming up with something that encompasses benign racism like the rhythm thing, but also allows for common sense.


class factotum said...

The problem is that sometimes, stereotypes are valid. For example:

Tall people make better basketball players than short people do.

Sometimes, there are legitimate physical differences that can cause different outcomes. Sometimes, it's just that people can confuse correlation with causation.

In Alaska in the summertime, ice-cream sales increase. So does the number of rapes. Whoa! Eating ice cream causes rape! Or, could it be that committing rape causes an increase in the desire for ice cream?

Stereotypes allow us to make quick judgments about a person based on what we know about the group to which he belongs, but that judgment should not substitute for who he is as an individual. A woman would be unwise to ignore a large man (of any color) as she walked alone on a dark city street -- she would be better off to cross the street to where the two old ladies are. Stereotyping? Yes, but sometimes you don't have time to get to know someone as an individual and have to make a snap decision. Maybe the two old ladies are part of an Arsenic and Old Lace gang, but it's pretty unlikely.

That said, when you have the chance, ignore stereotypes and judge every person as a human being. There is only one race: human.

(And that receptionist was unbelievably rude. If I were Tonya, I'd report the conversation to the doctor. The receptionist is not supposed to be insulting patients.)

CreoleInDC said...

A receptionist huh? Consider the source. *sigh*

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Home commenting during the workday b/c I am sick (bleah).

It's true that among the very best basketball players you won't find anyone who's not well above average height. I suppose my definition of - oh, gosh - "heightism"? would come in if you went from "tall people make better basketball players" to "you are a tall person so you must be a terrific basketball player". Actually, tall people have reported being irritated by the assumption that they love to play basketball.

As to that receptionist - it's been suggested to me that her racism wasn't her fault but rather a result of a larger pattern of white racism. I reject this. First because she is a human being with free will, not a puppet generated by the white overlords, and then because as that person with free will she chose to do what she did. If fifty black women on TennCare came in that office, and Tonya was number fifty-one, nothing stopped the receptionist from offering her a smile and asking to see her insurance card just like she did the white women.