Today I Called Someone's Actions Racist

Note: I don’t want to write about this on my blog because I want to hear from race-discussing people, my blog is so quiet you can hear the crickets chirping. I don’t want to write about it on the Daily Kos, even though I’d get traffic, because I’d get hostility and dismissal of white responsibility for reversing racism as a serious issue. Thank you, Andrea, for letting me guest post on Shrub–I’m using the privilege to write a rather “newbie” essay in this safe space.

Today I thought I was accusing “the city,” or some other general system, of having a racist blind eye. Turns out I was accusing my conversation partner of having a racist blind eye. I know from Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting In The Cafeteria?, Maxjulian’s blog, and Shrub that this is as important for me to do as, say, for men to point out each other’s sexism, but when I did it rudely, did I do more harm or more good in the world?

My office offered a “biking to work” clinic, and I sat down with a man who knew the city well and a bike map to get route suggestions.
 

I’m a chatty type, and I interrupt more than I should. I tried to close my mouth and open my ears, but I was so eager to find a dream route that I don’t believe I let the poor man finish a single route suggestion without me saying, “But why would I take that path when there’s this one?” or “You know, they need to fix that–there’s no bike path on that street.”

He had already showed me “from TW Park to work” and we were finding the best routes from my two homes to TW park. He’d suggested to head due west, then due north, but I, knowing that another road took me NW along the hypotenuse to downtown–that is, about 2/3 of the way to the park–asked him how to get the rest of the way from downtown to the park.
 

Improvising to accomodate a new request, he pointed out that I’d have to head south, west, and back north to go due west from downtown (or due west from slightly north of downtown, which is where my other starting point is).

I pointed out that there were no biking roads heading east-west across the swath of town stretching between both downtown and the park and home #2 and the park.
 

I said:

“It’s like the city decided, ‘Eh, no one in their right minds would go through that neighborhood!’”

He replied:

“Well, there are east-west roads.”

I said:

“Okay, ‘No one in their right minds would go through that neighborhood except surrounded by steel!’ Only that’s not a good thing to decide–people live there, and they might want to ride out of it, even if no one else will ride through it.”

He pointed out the parallel highway, railroad, and river running north-south along the eastern edge of this neighborhood, cutting it off from both home #2 and downtown.

I replied:

“Well, there could at least be some bikeable east-west roads on the other side of the highway, leaving bike riders only the 1-mile task of finding a path across the highway instead of across the whole neighborhood. It seems kinda racist to me.”

He stammered a few syllables and said:

“These are my routes, not the city’s.”

 

Essentially, while trying to accuse the city of having a racist blind eye towards necessary development, I actually accused my conversation partner of having a racist blind eye towards exploring and plotting necessary lines on a map.
 
 

So…what did I do? Plucky, brave, racism-battling white person that I am, I…
…backpedaled.

“Oh, this is your map?”
“Yes.”
“As in…you put all these lines here–these lines don’t designate bike paths on pavement?”
“Yes [with a longer explanation].”
“Ohhhhh, see I didn’t know this was a single person’s effort. Wooowwww.”
 

I backpedaled so he would feel like I’d brought up race as something he could guilt trip the city about next time he saw commissioners (he seemed like a connected bike advocate) rather than as something I was suggesting he fix in his behavior.
 

That was cowardly.

I also believe I did it because I’d been disrespectful of him in my conversational manners all along and didn’t feel that after I’d done so, I had the right to criticize him.

But I probably did it out of cowardice, too.
 

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending: while I was backpedaling, he took those minutes of “face-saving” dialogue to say, several times, that he would explore the neighborhood in search of bikeable east-west paths.
 

In other words, one white person calling another’s actions racist led to a change in those actions. That’s exactly what calling people out is supposed to do.

I have some questions for Shrub readers about the outcome.

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By Katie on May 9, 2007 · Posted in Shrub.com Related

3 Comments | Post Comment

Sigel Phoenix says:

I wish I had an answer for you, but as you might expect, it always depends on the situation. Some people will listen when you call them out on their racism because they’re good people and want to change. Some people, though good people who want to change, will be immediately put off by criticism and shut down any dialogue – this is especially the case with people who have never had real conversations on racism before. You just have to gauge the person’s reaction and try to work with them.

One tip I can give you is to emphasize that you’re not trying to attack their personal character. Acknowledge that they probably mean well, but that the institutionalized racism around us means that even the best of intentions can go wrong. It’s the system’s fault, not theirs (though, of course, that doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for changing it!).

Also:

I also believe I did it because I’d been disrespectful of him in my conversational manners all along and didn’t feel that after I’d done so, I had the right to criticize him.

Rudeness and politeness is pretty much irrelevant here. Even if you were rude, that doesn’t mean that his racism shouldn’t be called out; even if he was the nicest guy you’d ever met, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t also slip up and be racist. (You probably knew this, but still felt uncomfortable; I know that feeling well. But I thought it was worth mentioning.)

Posted on May 9th, 2007

Rachel says:

This is a very good. You should submit it to the Erase Racism Carnival.

Posted on May 16th, 2007

Rachel says:

Geeze sorry for the typo.

Posted on May 16th, 2007