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Sensitivity to race

Two years ago, when I visited Atlanta for Dragon Con, I blogged about some thoughts I had concerning racism.  This was my first time visiting Atlanta for more than just a few hours and it was my first time riding the public transportation here.  That visit and now living here have helped me be more observant to race issues.  Teaching at an HBCU has also helped me to better understand racism and related issues.

It's easy to convince myself that I'm race blind (or color-blind, as some put it).  As I understand it, scientific evidence points to the conclusion that it is impossible to actually be race blind.  I am aware of this intellectually, but I believe that the emotional understanding hasn't quite set in.  Today I was reminded that in fact I am not race blind.  That, in at least some sense of the word, I am racist.  Now, I use that word not to confess that I believe one race to be superior to another, but only to state that I acknowledge that I notice the difference of skin color and that it affects me, sometimes in ways that I am unaware of.  I believe that by being as aware as I can reasonably be, and by using caution I can help myself be a more equitable person towards all.

I went to a barber shop today.  I was the only white person in the shop.  There were 7 other people in the shop, all of them black males.  I was uncomfortable.  I wasn't worried or threatened.  I didn't expect any negative behavior or comments, and I didn't receive any.  On the contrary, they were very polite and respectful toward me.  Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable being the only white person there.

I know that one reason I was uncomfortable was because I didn't feel like I fit in on a social level--that is to say I didn't have anything to contribute to the conversation that they were all having with each other.  They were talking at one point about basketball players.  I'm sure if I were one of my brothers instead of myself I would have been able to add something, but as it was I only recognized the name Michael Jordan and could only have added that at least I knew which NBA team he played for.

One other thought that I had, though, was consideration to the respect that I was shown.  In general, I am--and have historically been--shy about being shown respect.  The first time I was called "sir" at a convenience store startled me.  Before I earned my degree, I would correct my students when they called me "doctor" or "professor", and was uncomfortable with the appellations.  I still am, to a degree.  I reject the notion of a tiered society that we maintain.  I believe we should move more toward egalitarian language and egalitarian status in society.  That aside, I was self-conscious about being shown respect.  I shouldn't be, but I was.

I feel embarrassed admitting it, but I was self-conscious about being respected because I suppose I do feel a subconscious need to apologize for my race.  I don't want anyone (black, white, or other) to treat me well because of my skin color.  I'm almost certain that wasn't the case with the men in this shop.  But that didn't stop me from having those thoughts, and those feelings.  For example, the one gentleman was cutting someone else's hair at the moment and said "We'll be with you in a minute."  It's a standard thing to say and I would have expected that at any establishment.  But I had that thought pop up that he was trying to be extra respectful because I was white.  I had to convince myself that I was wrong about that.

I thought about whether the guys there would talk about me after I left, and what they would say.  Perhaps to them it was nothing out of the ordinary.  Perhaps they often have white people come in for haircuts.  And, honestly, it doesn't matter what they say behind my back and I wouldn't have even had that thought if they had all been white instead of all black--or even if they had been racially diverse.  I actually feel guilty for having had that thought.  It shouldn't matter what race they are, and it shouldn't matter what race I am.  It may very well not have mattered to them, but it did matter to me--not that I believe it did or should matter, but that I had certain reactions because of their race.

I wondered how they perceived my discomfort.  Were they aware of the fact that I was uncomfortable?  Did they think that I was judging them?  Did they think that I was scared?  Did they just think I was shy?  I tried to make an effort to be congenial to help dispel any negative vibes I may have been sending.  I wasn't very talkative, but I rarely am unless the person cutting my hair maintains the conversation.

One thing, which in retrospect I find rather odd, that I can say is that I don't have these feelings when I'm at school.  I'm surrounded by black people all the time and I don't (at least not very often or as intensely) feel these kinds of things.  When a student uses a respectful form of address, I naturally assume it is because of my degree and my position, not because of my skin color.  When I teach, I am always the only white person in the room but I never feel like the only white person in the room--at least not like I did today at the barber shop.  Feeling that feeling gave me a taste of what it might feel like to be the only black person in a room full of white people.  Surely they'll have different thoughts or feelings, but they may be similar in nature.

The experience has helped motivate me to try to be more aware and less sensitive.  Less sensitive in the sense that I don't need to apologize for my race.  If a black person is respectful to me, I don't need to worry about whether it's because in the past (and even still in the present, in some cases) black people were (are) forced to show deference to white people.  More aware in the sense that I should acknowledge ways in which race affects me and those I interact with.  If I am aware of race issues, I can more appropriately handle them and respond to them.  I don't need to feel bad about being white, and I don't think any white person should.  Racist people should feel bad for being racist, but being white doesn't make someone racist.  I do want to be aware that I am white, and aware of how that might affect me, how people treat me, and how I come across to other people.  I want to be aware of my own thoughts and feelings, so I can dismiss those which are unfounded and irrational and address those which are of concern.

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