I remember well this student’s seemingly self-congratulatory comment even after these many years: “Racism doesn’t affect me because I am white.”
She was a middle-aged, non-traditional student who was also a wife and mother; taking my three-hour evening African American literature undergraduate course soon after I joined the faculty at Arizona State University in the late 1990s.
Her honest and inoffensive comment was disappointing to hear, actually at the heart of what I was trying to achieve in my literature course: using African American literature as a vehicle through which to see and potentially understand how denying another of their humanity diminishes our own individual humanity.
This student really saw no connection between American racism and her life as a white person in Phoenix, Arizona.
For me, this student’s comment underscores the common misconception that racism is indeed a black person’s problem, failing to acknowledge that the source of racism – the illusion of white supremacy – does in fact affect everyone, this student included.
That fact that she can think that racism doesn’t affect her is in fact evidence that it does affect her. Author James Baldwin, in his preface to his play “Blues for Mister Charlie” (1964) calls American racism “a plague” that does indeed affect blacks and whites.
To imagine that a white person is not affected by racism is to deny the benefits of white privilege from which every single white person in this country benefits.
As a popular social media meme asserts: “White privilege doesn’t mean your life [as a white person] hasn’t been hard. It means your skin color isn’t one of the things making it harder.”
And in her 2012 YouTube interview with Charlie Rose, author Toni Morrison pulls back the curtain on this illusion: “The [white] people who practice racism are bereft. There is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste and it’s corruption and a distortion. It’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy, it is crazy. And it has just as much a deleterious effect on white people … as it does on black people. ….
“What are you [as a white person] without racism [and its serviceability]? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Still smart? Do you still like yourself?… If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”
Ableist language aside, Morrison here challenges the assumption that racism does not affect white people. The reality is that everyone is affected by racism.
Imagining American racism as a plague underscores the absurdity of our Jim Crow history of racial separation (1880s to 1960s) and a kind of inversion of what I am witnessing during this covid-19 pandemic.
As most know, Jim Crow laws were both written and unwritten – but always understood – rules of behavior and access for both blacks and whites that separated blacks from whites after Emancipation and through the Civil Rights Movement.
While the real reason for the racial segregation arguably was to prevent the racial intermingling and intimacies between newly freed black men and white women, the rules were persistent and illogical:
Separate black and white hospitals, separate black and white waiting rooms, separate black and white cemeteries; separate black and white water fountains; separate black and white transportation sections; separate black and white schools.
The list goes on and on, and across all of these United States.
It’s the actual visual aesthetic of the Jim Crow era that is not lost on me as I see folks in my not-terribly-racially/ ethnically-integrated neighborhood walk “social/ physical distancing” by staying away from each other, especially moving away from me and others by stepping off the sidewalks and even moving to another side of the street.
These movements once upon a time signaled racial separation and its irrationality.
Philosopher WEB DuBois, in his short story “On Being Crazy” (1907), describes a white man walking along a road who moves to the other side of a street when a black person is approaching him, allegedly because the black person is black and black is “dirty.”
The irony of this incident is that the white man walks in wet mud on the other side of the street to avoid the black man.
Interestingly, a couple of years ago, a white woman alone chose not to sit next to me at a theater show even though the empty seat on the front row was available in a crowded auditorium. Instead, she squeezed herself into a makeshift space farther back from the stage alongside two other white people.
In this covid-19 health crisis, racism is indeed manifested in the same way that we see sexism, ageism, homophobia, classism and other normalized institutional systems of oppression: they are blatant deniers of individual humanity.
The irony of this coronavirus scare is that the virus itself is not discriminating as it infects blacks, whites, old, young, rich, poor, women and men, celebrities and common everyday folks.
However, we see xenophobic and racist responses to it when it is problematically named the “Chinese virus” and violent attacks and other insults are directed at Asians, and as this 2 April 2020 PBS News Hour story affirms, “COVID-19 May Not Discriminate Based on Race—But US Health Care Does.”
Still, I can’t help noticing distant parallels when I see my mostly non-black neighbors moving away from me on my morning walks and me away from them.
Now, at least I know that their particular movement away from me is not necessarily because they are avoiding me or are afraid of me solely because I am a black male in 21st century America.
Ahwatukee resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.