My best friend and I talk about race quite a bit. The fact that we are both Black and living in a small town, means that we have have very similar experiences. He recently embarked on a project that I have nicknamed act like the white folk do. This means instead of waiting for the inevitable racist response from the bigoted White members of our community he acts in a proactive manner.
While I laugh at each of his antics, I know that they serve the point of teaching people about racism in a way that they certainly didn’t expect. When he got tired of White women jumping into a corner the moment he entered an elevator, he decided to teach them what this felt like. Now when he enters an elevator, he cramps himself into a corner, clutches himself and looks with fear at the White woman. Often times this has brought about a deep blush. Lesson learned.
Shopping for anything in this area is also an opportunity for a person of colour to expose themselves to racism. After we go through the deeply shaming experience of either being ignored outright, or directed to cheaper items, the cashier makes sure to shame us. I personally have been referred to as a “gal” and been offered layway because my colour indicated I didn’t have enough money to pay for the item that I was looking at. Ironically, I knew that at the time, I made more money than the woman who was showing me the product I sought to purchase. It is nothing to stand in line and watch as cashiers hand change directly to White people, and then put the change on the conveyer belt, rather than touch our hands because we are of colour. To preempt this, he has begun to demand in advance that all change be placed on the conveyer belt, sending the message that he does not want to touch them. This of course often brings a look of utter embarrassment, not only from the cashier, but from anyone White who witnesses the exchange. Lesson learned.
Finally, as a runner he is quite accustomed to White women grabbing their purses as he passes or crossing the road to get away from him. To counter this, before they can react, he crosses the road, giving the person a look of disgust and crosses back when he is well past them, making them aware of his actions. This of course sends the message that Whiteness can indeed be a symbol of fear. When we consider the amount of violence that Whiteness is guilty of perpetrating against people of colour, this is not in the least bit unreasonable.
As a Black male, he has become accustomed to being seen as threat simply for existing. This is extremely terrible, because he is an incredibly gentle and loving man. I remember watching his nervousness as he held my children for the first time. He is absolutely dedicated to his family and would do anything for them. I trust him with my children completely, though he has difficulty not fulfilling their every whim. This is the man that White people choose to treat as a threat on sight because of the colour of his skin.
I fully support this little experiment, because of the degree of racism in this area. The very idea that Whiteness should be entitled to the benefit of the doubt is ridiculous, when one is assaulted daily by racism. Even the most common everyday actions that White people can take for granted, he simply cannot. There is always the assumption that he is a criminal and this of course has lead to lots of interactions with the police, who have no problem stopping him and questioning him. In those few moments when he “acts like the White folk do,” he gives someone a stark lesson on what it is to be a person of colour in this area.
The average supposedly liberal White person has no idea of what it is like to live with daily assault of racism. Many believe that because they have declared themselves decidedly not racist (after all, white sheets are for the bed and not for wearing in public now), because they avoid obvious signs of racism. In fact, these supposedly liberal White people can be more guilty than a member of the Aryan Nation of racist actions. It is the small ever day signs that you are decidedly “other” that wear on a person of colour. Is it really any wonder that our lives are far more stressful, and that some POC have come to feel that existing in the Western world is akin to living in a war zone? No matter how nice or liberal a White person is, at some point, they will be racist and the pain of this is indescribable. Throughout my life, I have forged many relationships with White people, and I can tell you that many of them have been ruined as a result of a failure to admit racist language or actions. In a White supremacist world every interaction that a POC has a with a White person, race will always play a role.