The audacity of whiteness, or How I was trying to mind my own business

Despite my years now as an anti-racism writer/speaker and non-profit director, the moments when I encounter casual racism can still at times take my breath away. While I prefer to look more deeply at systemic racism and how we can move the needle on inequity, the reality is that systems are made up of people. After all, the criminal justice system is not run by a slew of advanced robots (yet), but by real-life people who bring their own biases and feelings with them every day. Biases that determine outcomes for other people. 

Increasingly, as my readership has grown, I have shied away from writing about my personal daily encounters with racism. In part because it brings out the trolls (and the cries of “Didn’t happen!” or “Get over it!”) and also because the daily microaggressions that I encounter are simply a daily reality for the majority of Black and Brown people. In other words, it is what it is. 

That said, I recently had two casual encounters with racism that I do want to talk about because they highlight the insidious nature of how racism lives in white souls and comes out under the guise of conversation—when, in reality, it is deeply ingrained racism bubbling over. And it’s not just racism; it’s violence. 

Recently I dropped into a local gathering in my island community—a casual, cross-generational affair, where conversations tend to be lighthearted. In other words, a space where I am not generally going to delve into my work. Instead, the conversations lean more towards the banal and frankly, in that space, I am OK with it. I don’t always want to be on. 

I was sitting with a group when someone mentions a holiday party they recently attended and how there was a former NFL player in attendance and he was a jerk. Everyone had a good chuckle as she described him. Until one person at the table, an older white woman, proceeds to go on a tirade about how the NFL is filled with “these people” who have no decency. They don’t even speak English, because all they can speak is “jive” and they have all these women and their fancy cars. 

Hold up! 

How did we go from talking about a former NFL player at a holiday party being a jerk to denigrating an entire group of people due to their occupation? Our old friend whiteness is clearly at work again and I will forever believe that alcohol for many is the truth serum as it gives them the courage to say what they really think. Furthermore, without even knowing the race of the guy we originally were discussing, it was clear that this woman was making a proclamation about Black people, since one doesn’t use a word like jive without racial connotations. 

In that moment, I quietly said to the white woman making these statements that perhaps these people had similar feelings about her and didn’t care for her either and I left a few minutes later. Unfortunately, none of the white people at the table challenged her inane comments and honestly, I wasn’t in the mood to engage. 

By the way, the asshole NFL player in question was a white man. I had a hunch that he was based on the nature of the gathering he was at but I later confirmed it with the storyteller. 

It may come as a surprise to some, given my work, but I really am not interested in providing a free lesson on race every time a white person puts their foot in their mouth, nor am I interested in getting pissed off. However those are the moments where I am reminded that there are plenty of white people who are willing to be friends across racial lines but they have neither the skill or interest in being an ally or accomplice. In other words, when another white person is letting their racism out, there is no cavalry to help a sister out. Lesson learned. 

While the incident has sat with me, it wasn’t until this weekend’s Uber ride where I encountered a rather brazen white man that I realized that I needed to release this. 

I woke up early this morning with the intention to drop into my favorite yoga studio for some much needed nourishment. That meant an early boat ride to the mainland and an Uber ride to another town. 

I ended up in an Uber driven by an older, chatty white man. While I am not against small talk when I am in an Uber or cab, I don’t seek out such conversations because inevitably, the conversation drifts into “What do you do for a living?” My standard answer is “I am the director of a Boston-based nonprofit” and for most folks that is enough. Sadly for me, my driver decided that driving the car wasn’t enough and decided to ask specifically what we did at my nonprofit. 

Truthfully, this line of questioning annoys me even more than the standard “What do you do” line, because I always sense a spirit of disbelief. A Black woman in Maine, the head of an entire nonprofit in Boston? I get it: In the white mind, that doesn’t compute. Shit, I might as well have just said that I am a unicorn. Hence I must be grilled to ascertain that I am being truthful. It’s white violence; it’s the insidious nature of how white supremacy operates. 

So as I explain what we do, I am peppered with questions on my work, which are too numerous to write about, but the conversation took an interesting turn after I referred to Trump as a white nationalist. To which my driver turns sideways (sir, we are on the highway, I need you to look at the road, if wanted to die, I could have driven myself) and says, I have to disagree, Trump is not a white nationalist, he is an American. 

Did I mention we are on a highway going about 60 mph? 

Finding out that your driver is a Trump man on the highway is not what I wanted or needed, but there we were. While I don’t seek out fights, if you bring the fight to my door, I will not back down. 

So we went back and forth as he proceeds to tell me how he started his own company 35 years ago and he worked hard and no one ever gave him a thing and how he hired all kinds of people and never even cared about their color. Harold (yes that was his name), how mighty white of you! Of course he had to share with me that he has been called a racist but that he isn’t a racist. 

Harold, if the shoe fits, you might need to wear it. 

I quietly explained that while I have no doubts that he worked hard and feels that he was self-made, that if we look at things systemically, that for every so called, self made white man, we can chart the data on how Black folks and other people of color are often not accorded the same access to capital, etc. that allowed him to thrive. I also suggested a few books to read, if he really wanted a better understanding of racism from a systemic point of view. 

Thankfully, I was able to shift the conversation away from race but at that point, the damage was done. My mood had shifted and I bailed on yoga and instead went to our family home and sat with the conversation I had just had. Hence this post. 

I was minding my own business and looking to engage in self-care this morning and this white man felt entitled to intrude upon my peace and in the end, detoured my day. That’s how microaggressions operate but in reality, they aren’t microaggressions. They are macroaggressions in more compact packaging. For white people, these actions are unseen or nothing but for Black folks and other people of color, exchanges like the ones I have written about are about chipping away at your humanity and right to exist. As I have often said, if I were a brain surgeon rather than an anti-racist, would ignorant white people feel entitled to foist unwanted conversations on me where they try to challenge my knowledge or how I do my job? Probably not, because I would be seen as the professional that I am. 

Anyway, it was just another day while living as a Black woman or a day ending in the letter y. As for my yoga class, I guess I will have to try again tomorrow. 

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13 thoughts on “The audacity of whiteness, or How I was trying to mind my own business”

  1. That story resonated. It reminded me how there was never a time I felt invisible while traveling as a black man in Japan. Of course, I was seen for my physical appearance and the preconceived notions that come with that, but my humanity was invisible. This was made clear the night I was aggressively searched on a street by police without cause for walking while black early one morning in Osaka, Japan. Imagine being a traveling engineer in another country and more times than not being asked by police: “Where did you buy this stuff?” because of the color of your skin. That happened to me in my hotel lobby three days into my stay.

    Throughout my business travels in Asia, I’ve learned there is almost nowhere on this beautiful planet that any person of the African diaspora can step foot without witnessing white supremacy holding the reigns. I am convinced that it is an act of defiance to white supremacy that aims to lessen our personhood worldwide, and I believe it is crucial we show up and explore every corner of the planet if your circumstances allow.

    And the false narratives/stereotypes of inherent Black promiscuity and hyper-sexuality that white supremacy has perpetuated worldwide about black men lead to me being to routinely propositioned by prostitutes when I was working in Japan. Imagine being beckoned by hookers in hotel lobbies, rail stations and restrooms; blowing kisses, feigning blowjobs with their heads and signaling with their eyes to go upstairs because she assumes you’re super promiscuous. Because you’re a Black man. It felt like shit and at times it took everything I had in me not to resort to violence.

    I was angered and humiliated in a way that not only changed the way I traveled in the rest of Japan, but it forced me to become hyper-aware of my blackness that I couldn’t be my full self. I refused to smile, make eye contact or engage in small talk with anyone, especially women, afraid to give the wrong idea. I moved carefully and always stayed “lit,” yet found myself shrinking in order to accommodate those moving around or past me.

    So, as with many close relationships I’ve had with white Americans, and their unconscious biases against and misunderstandings of Black people, in particular, tends to reveal itself sooner or later. And thus I will never “get over” the tokenizing, the microaggressions, the subtle pejorative and pedestrian dismissals of Black pain.

  2. Shay, I am so sorry that a morning intended to be about self-care and to improve your well-being was stolen from you (as well as a lighthearted social gathering…and so many other similar occurences). Thank you though for sharing. I appreciate the insight into what are “macroaggressions in more compact packaging” so that I can “see” and act accordingly (or try) as a white woman. I hope you make that next yoga class unimpeded.

  3. You sound like a really prejudiced and racist person yourself. Do you think your Trump supporting driver was going to hurt you? What a geek like you considers racism, the rest of us calls realism

    • The man was driving a car at high speed with her in the back. Any rational person would have been concerned in her situation. I’m a white woman and would have been afraid to disagree with and possibly antagonize a man espousing support for a president who has shown himself to be racist and misogynistic who was in control of my safety. The El Paso shooter espoused similar views as well and he gunned down 22 people. If you wouldn’t be concerned, you are either (1) a white man or (2) in denial of the racist reality we live in.

  4. What a moron! You don’t like small talk and the Uber driver asks you what you do for work and you bring up Trump is a white nationalist?! You look for arguments. Go eat a banana! #fool

    • It sounds like it only came up because the driver asked her numerous intrusive questions. I’d be annoyed too, even though I’m white, but black people have to put up with even more of that kind of thing.

  5. Rolph, this is an ignorant, needlessly insulting comment. A person doesn’t need to threaten physical violence to be acting in a racist and hurtful way, and also, similar encounters sometimes do end in physical violence (see all the black people killed for simply existing). Shay, I’m sorry people are disrespectful enough to post shit like this on your own site.

  6. Why do you allow white racists to have a voice on your website. Contaminating the conversation and oozing their bigotry and fragility all over YOUR site?

  7. I’m so sorry Shay that you have to deal with these macroaggressions in your daily life AND clearly here in the comments on your blog. I wish I knew the right thing to say to trolls like those commenting here, to shut them up, but I’ve found that any direct engagement makes things worse 🙁 Thank you for all you do, and for the amount of labor, mental – emotional – physical – soulful, you put into making this world a better place for all. Sending you love and relaxation. I hope you get some uninterrupted self-care very soon!!

  8. Shay, your essay resonated with me, an older white woman. (I guess 58 is older.) I write because I feel compelled to speak out with my perspective and a question. The question is for you or anyone or the world – or myself.

    In a very small way, I find myself confronting systemic, and openly hostile racism where I see it – usually on social media. I have no idea if this makes a difference. My efforts to ‘educate’ racists probably goes nowhere, and they only dig in their heels even more.
    The nastiness on social media requires strong, direct confrontation – and often reporting of accounts. Parts of Twitter are a cesspool of white Nationalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-LGBTQ, white religious fundamentalists who hate everyone not like themselves. Just look at certain accounts who respond to Donald Trump tweets. Or don’t, because it’s disheartening….

    But still, now and thenI fight them.

    Occasionally I’ve heard racism directly (like the conversation about the NFL you described) in conversations with family, friends, acquaintances – and I’ll usually try to say something polite but disapproving, often an anecdote that proves the opposite of their prejudice. Or a comment like, “you’re stereotyping a whole group of people.” I hope I would have spoken up in the NFL situation.

    In the past, I have said “that’s racist” to return-reactions of surprise, of defiance and denial, of patronizing, of misogyny, of dawning realization, of sheepishnesss…

    I’ve reached a point where I’m just not close to anyone who would say racist things. I’ve lived in the southeast where racism was quite common, often blatant -Now I live in the southwest, where racism takes a different form. I live in a city that, while not perfect, is remarkably tolerant, comparatively. Or maybe I’m sheltered in life and don’t come in contact with it personally much; I’m white, and I believe white people often don’t SEE racism.

    My friends now are those who think like I do and have similar views. I was raised to be aware of injustices, racism, prejudice, bigotry. But I’ve discovered that this commonality actually keeps me personally sheltered from the realities of racism and bigotry.

    But I still see it, hear it, am very aware of it in the world.

    My question: does anyone have suggestions on how to deal with systemic, casual racism or bigotry when it crops up from family or friends, people you are maintaining a relationship with? Those people with whom you have to keep a reasonable communication open?
    I’ve cut off all contact with a cousin because he’s a racist, misogynistic jerk, a Trump supporter, and probably a white nationalist. I’d fear for my safety if I gave him my phone number or address. But there is extended family, acquaintances, work mates, and especially classmates. What to do?

    So, anyway, I’ve gone on enough. Thank you, Shay, for your blog. And thank you for anyone who read my response here with love and tolerance in their heart.

  9. I am so sorry for what you have to endure and for the sneering cult members daring to comment on your blog. Their hateful ignorance disgusts me; I wish there were some way to block them. I wish they’d read books like Rising Out of Hatred. Thank you for your work, and may more white people do ours so you can get more rest and self-care, and may you be cared for by others.

  10. Dear Shay–I am a 72-year-old white boy. And Jewish. A friend posted your piece on her Facebook page. I’m very glad I had the opportunity to read your important statement. I’m so sorry you went through that terrible, potentially deadly car ride. And I’m sorry to read a few of the comments posted above. You have my respect and support. The same for the individuals who’ve posted here in support of you. I believe it’s essential for those of us who are white to speak out both against structural, systematic racism and against casual racism as in the incidents you’ve described.

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