June 14th, 2013

me: walk softly and carry big stick

"But honey, you're racist too." "Yes, I know."

I have a little anecdote from yesterday that I feel nicely illustrates that racism isn't just for foaming bigots with shaven heads and small intellects. It isn't always obviously easy to disparage and avoid engaging in yourself.

I hopped onto a packed train headed to Birmingham from London. Well, I say "hopped". It was more like, "dove through through the doors being held dangerously open for me and three others by a platform attendant four seconds before it departed". The three other people started walking down the train carriages in front of me, looking for spare seats. The first person found a seat at the end of the first carriage. We went through three more carriages before encountering another that appeared empty.*

The two people in front of me went straight past it.

I stopped and asked the three men sitting quietly next to the unoccupied seat, "Excuse me, is anyone sat there?" They looked at me. (They looked surprised.) "No," one of them replied, "it's free. Take it."

This becomes a story about racism when you learn that the two people in front of me were white and the three men sitting around the empty seat were black.

I was reminded of a scene at the opening of the film Higher Learning.** It lasts about thirty seconds but it's burned onto my memory and I only saw the film once when it came out nearly twenty years ago. A young white woman gets into a lift with one other occupant. The other occupant is a young black man, also a student, who regards her with friendly curiosity, ready to say hello. She presses the button for her floor without looking at him, then stands in the opposite corner of the lift. As the doors close, she clutches her handbag to her a little more tightly, still not looking at him. He sees this and shakes his head, smiling sadly.

Racism can be subtle. It's ingrained in our subconscious and enforced by influences that we don't necessarily recognise. Those two people in front of me probably would have been horrified if confronted and asked, "Did you deliberately avoid that seat because it was surrounded by three black men?" It's hard to correct yourself for prejudice, I realise that. It falls on the person feeling the effects to point them out to you, which is damnably difficult, and for you to be strong enough to apologise, simply and succinctly, if required, and incorporate your new awareness into your future interactions. But we must try.***

* Please note also that this seat was nowhere near a smelly toilet or a person listening to loud music. Nor did it appear to have anything else wrong with it.
** I can recall very little else about the film, so can't recommend or discourage viewing.
*** I do not agree with Yoda in this instance.

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