Here’s a simple test to find out if you’re a racist. Answer the following questions:
Are you alive?
Are you breathing?
Is your heart beating?
If you answer yes to any of those questions then you are a racist.
I once visited the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. At the entrance to the museum were two doors. One door was marked “Enter here if you are not racist.” The other door was marked “Enter here if you are racist.”
I, of course, headed for the ‘not racist’ door. It was locked. I had to enter through the ‘racist’ door. My mind was blown before I even entered the museum.
I came by my racism honestly. The town where I grew up had a sign at the city limits that proclaimed, “If you are black, don’t let the sun set on you here.” I never actually saw the sign. It was removed sometime in the 1960s. The sign may have been removed, but its sentiment never was.
The entire time I was growing up in Northeast Oklahoma, I never saw a black person. Not in real life. On TV, sure. There was Good Times and Linc in The Mod Squad. I thought all black people said things like “Dyno-mite!” I thought black people “moving on up, to the east side, to a de-luxe apartment in the sky” was funny because everyone knew that George and Weezie didn’t belong on that side of town.
One time in high school, we had a pep rally for a big football game that was that night. We were playing against a team who had several black players on it. So, our football team came running into the rally wearing sheets over their heads with KKK written on them. The audience cheered. I was among the students who clapped and cheered. So were all our teachers, the football coach, and the principal. I remember thinking that it wasn’t quite right, but hey, it was just a game, right? We weren’t actually doing anything, right?
(I wonder if some of my old high school friends are reading this. Do they remember that rally? Do they feel as embarrassed and mortified as I do now?)
I met my first real live black person when I went to college at Northeastern State University. She was the only black person in the theatre department. Her name was DaVette. She was beautiful and talented. She broke a racial barrier by becoming the very first black Miss Northeastern. She became a very good friend of mine. She helped me realize how very racist I really was – even though I didn’t want to be.
One time, we went grocery shopping together. I was poor. And hungry. But that’s no excuse for what I did. I stole a package of steaks. I stuck them down the back of my pants and walked out of the store. When we got to the car, I proudly showed DaVette what I had stolen.
She freaked out. “Don’t you realize what you did? I’m black. If they caught you, you’d get a slap on the wrist. If they knew I was with you, I’d get thrown in jail for god only knows how long.”
DaVette was right. That was the first time I ever realized how different things were for black people.
Years later, when I was a struggling writer living in Los Angeles, I dated a black woman. It didn’t matter to us that we were interracial lesbians. However, it did matter to others. I went to a party with her once. The house was filled with her friends, all black lesbians. I was the only white woman there. I was generally greeted warmly, but some of the women were outright hostile to me. I remember being a little afraid. I thought, “So this is what black people must feel like most of the time. Outnumbered. Surrounded. Scared.”
I was in Los Angeles, working downtown, when the Rodney King riots broke out. I’ve never been so scared in my life. National Guard pointing machine guns at me as I tried to walk to my apartment. It was a horrid mess. If I think about it too much, I can still smell the smoke in the air. I can see the ash from the multitude of fires piling on the ground like snowdrifts. I can hear the explosions and the sound of glass shattering. I was scared of black people during that time. I was scared to be a vulnerable female, scared to be white in a world that seemed to enjoy kicking the shit out of black people every chance it got.
I’ve tried to get rid of my racism that I was born into. It’s not easy. I realize I have a white privilege, and quite frankly, it embarrasses me. I try my damnest to write women of color into my books. I try to give them a voice. However, I haven’t ever written a main character that was a woman of color. I wouldn’t feel right doing that. I don’t think that’s my story to tell.
I only know that we are all racists, every last one of us. The holocaust museum was right. And the sooner we walk through the racist door, the sooner we can work toward becoming a more accepting America. So, when leaders like Trump or Bannon come along and tell us to let our race, gender, faith, or sexual orientation divide us… we must resist.
We have to learn from the past. We have to. Or we will be destroyed.