for release February 7, 2003
by Melodie Davis
A Room Of One's Own
Racism shows itself most overtly when the topic of race comes up in a room or place where everyone else appears to be your "color." I don't care what color people are, in such a situation you will probably hear what they really think of people of ”other colors."
Trent Lott's recent debacle in the U.S. underscored the fact that a deep fault line concerning race still ominously rattles the windows and doors of the shaky house of straw we have tried to build in the last 100 years.
I was reminded of this fact when driving my parents to Florida last November. On one of many bathroom breaks, I waited in a gas station/convenience store while my Dad slowly tottered to the restroom. We had just crossed into Alabama. As the cashier talked about the bees flying around outside, she noted a bit of local folklore that a bee wouldn't sting the African Americans who were at the pump filling up their tank. Only she referred to them with the "n" word.
I was a little stunned. My eyes quickly darted around the store, and my guess was correct: no persons of color were currently inside the facility. I thought to myself, "Welcome to the real South." She didn't say it venomously; it was just the word that was handy, which shows it is still used when you are in a room with your own kind no matter whether you live south or north. It is an old habit that is hard to break and the words slip out, kind of like Trent Lott's words just slipping out "in the moment."
I won't get into the debate over Trent Lott (say what you will, but at least he had the grace to step down, unlike some other notable leaders we won't name), but I fear that the worst part about the fiasco (much of it owing to media coverage) is not so much what he said, but the inevitable backlash. Some white people feel threatened by what happened. While it is good for North Americans to clean up the racial skeletons hanging in their closets, the rattling of these old bones makes hair stand on end for some and makes them lash out, raise their defenses, and corral the good old boys.
How do you fight backlash? Backlash happens when good people who know they shouldn't be racist, experience situations where someone behaves badly. Someone uses race to get or keep a job, or perhaps "steal" a place in the university your kid had his heart set on. It is affirmative action gone awry. Someone uses race to gloss over a lackluster job performance. When these things happen, a white person's racist feelings become even more ingrained because maybe they have tried to be fair and they got cheated. People of color would perhaps say, welcome to the club.
However, just because people of color can behave badly doesn't mean that all people of color do. On talk shows and in chat rooms you even hear people glibly saying that slavery wasn't so bad or evil. What a gross misrepresentation, like saying the holocaust didn't happen.
What I'm striving to find here is a middle ground, something we all can agree on, because if we don't find middle ground, I fear the widening chasm, the abyss that we may slide into like so many other countries around the globe. As a white person, can I be so brash as to suggest that those of us who champion equality and equal treatment do so wisely rather than ignite backlash which will only serve to worsen conditions. And while it can be argued that we should all let "by-gones be by-gones, what's past is past and it doesn't have anything to do with me," the fact that such conversations take place at all when in the company of one's own is evidence that racism is still alive and well. It should help white people understand at times why a person of color appears to play "the race card" or says someone is being racist, because white people privately have conversations that are indeed very racist. No wonder African Americans are quick to jump to the conclusion that whites are still racist. (Of course, African Americans can be racist too.)
But by God's grace, we can be more than racist: we can treat each other with the knowledge that we are all God's people, all the same inside no matter what shade of beige, brown, black or tan we sport. We are all in the same "room," - planet earth. And like quarreling kids who are sent to the same room, we better learn to get along.
Our very existence may depend on it. For more on racism, go to: <http://www.thirdway.com/rad/radcap.shtml>
Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 795 words; end material = 105 words
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