I’ve recently had several opportunities to do what I think is right, and each time I let the chance go. I had chances to chip away at prejudice and racism, but I did not take them.
The chances were not flashy or glorious. I did not balk at the chance to step in while a minority was being actively excluded. I let a much more insidious transgression to take place. I did and said nothing while the white people around me made bigoted remarks about minorities.
The remarks weren’t anything like, “You know, I really hate black people.” No, they were worse, if you can imagine. The remarks in question were worse because they were subtle enough for the speakers to be unaware they said anything offensive.
On Monday, a repairwoman was at my house and she told me how happy she was that I’m an “American.” Recently, she said, most of her house calls were to “Muslims” and “Indians,” and it was nice to be around an American. She never uttered an overtly prejudicial word, but what was unspoken was more telling than any foul word she could have said – being a Muslim or an Indian disqualifies you from classification as an American.
I said nothing, but my silence, I fear, was interpreted as understanding or worse, agreement. I like to think I said nothing because she was holding the expensive and delicate inner workings of my television, but that’s only partially true. A truer statement would be I simply didn’t want conflict. I chose the path of least resistance.
The problem is that when people choose tranquility over speaking out, things never change. I’m afraid that people may be at the peak of intercultural understanding if the repairperson’s brand of thinking is allowed to go unchecked.
Race relations in this country have not followed a linear, ever-upward progression as many people think. According to historian James W. Loewen, race relations were much better in the years after the Civil War than they were in the early years of the 20th century when they began to deteriorate. I don’t need to describe them from there, but just because people are at a relatively tolerant time in history does not mean regression is impossible.
America is at a point where its people pay lip service to the idea that they should be accepting of others who are “different.” Gone from the public are the obvious, outward signs of intolerance, such as segregated water fountains or laws that forbid marriages between blacks and whites. They’ve been gone so long that many white people think racism is a thing of the past.
It isn’t – it has only grown more subtle, as many minorities know too well.
I’m not saying the repairperson, or the others with whom I’ve experienced these transgressions, should not be allowed to speak their minds. The First Amendment should apply to unpleasant speech as much as it should to pleasant. The problem comes when people such as me – who claim to believe in equality – let statements go without challenge. By doing so, I helped to perpetuate this feeling of white superiority.
I’m not na’ve. I don’t think people will, in after-school-special style, say, “Wow, you’re right. I’ve been a horrible person, and I’m going to change right now.” But challenging people when they make prejudicial statements will get them to think. If you’re lucky, it will get them to defend their position in a civilized way, for one cannot mount an effective argument for something without thinking about it. And the more someone thinks about prejudice, the more apparent it is that it’s wrong.
One person challenging the racism of another does not instantly cure everything. I’m not arguing the whole world will hold hands and sing like the old Coke commercials if one person challenges another’s thoughtless statements. But if enough people have more courage than I do, it is less likely these insensitive thoughts will be transferred to the next generation.
Josh Corban is a senior majoring in anthropology.