We consider ourselves to be unbiased, color-blind, tolerant and accepting of all. And yet the accusations of racism and ableism against ordinary, good people in our society never cease.
It brings up defensiveness, anxiety and eventually anger. We don’t see the point.
So what if someone made a slip of the tongue? So what if a group of kids smirked in the general direction of a Native American elder?
"There are good reasons. The kids were provoked by a weird religious cult that was racist against white people! There you have it. It’s really all reverse discrimination, a bunch of losers whining because they don’t have what it takes to make it in direct competition, so they want affirmative action and cry ‘racism’ or ‘ableism’ at every turn.”
It is rarely said that coherently and in one breath, but it is what a lot of people think.
I know because I used to think essentially that, except for including ableism in it or resenting affirmative action. I was 18 at the time and I was and still am ninety percent blind. I was mildly, quietly resentful of the focus on racial justice at my university. There was almost no mention of ableism back then and I felt that discrimination against people with disabilities was given short shrift.
It was and often still is. But that did not mean that racism was any less of a problem than the students of color said it was. They were exhausted over the endless fight with it and they were far more tired of the topic than I could ever have been. That was the part I didn’t understand.
It took traveling and living in thirty different countries, listening to hundreds of people tell me their stories while I wrote about social justice issues as a journalist and becoming part of an ethnically mixed family to entirely change my views.
Today, I have to say that such dismissal, excuses and faux neutrality, which once had me duped, is not just the mild fringe of racism and ableism, but rather its heart and core.
Two days ago my third-grade daughter came home from school upset. Her hands were shaking while she told me that some boys had been drawing insulting pictures of Asians on the blackboard when the teacher wasn’t in the room. They were laughing and saying derogatory things about Asian people. A few Asian families have moved to our small town in the past few years. Most classes at the school now have an Asian kid or two in them. My daughter’s class doesn’t have an Asian kid, but it does have my daughter, the only person of color in the classroom.
My daughter, who is generally pretty timid, went up to the boys and asked them, “How would you like it if someone laughed at you that way?”
One of the boys turned to her and said, “You of all people had better shut up. You’re the most brown of any of us.”
My daughter went back to her friends. She was upset and one of her friends was sympathetic. My daughter was too afraid to do anything about it or report it. The classroom has an anonymous tip box for the teacher, where the kids can put a note if they have a problem they don’t want to talk to the teacher about personally but want to resolve. My daughter’s friend offered to write a note and put it in the box because my daughter was too afraid.
Then, in the evening I wrote a note to the teacher through the parent-teacher communication system. My daughter’s teacher has generally been wonderful and exceptionally kind.
I had done multicultural sensitivity workshops in the preschool but have since been overwhelmed with work, health problems and family troubles for the last few years. They had wanted me to come back but I just couldn’t do it. It takes several days to plan, gather materials and do the workshops, and I have to take the time off of work. There usually isn’t a budget for any materials, so I have to fund that myself. Obviously I’m doing it as a volunteer, not getting paid.
But I decided it was time to get back into it. I offered the teacher my help in doing some workshops for her class and told her what I had understood from my daughter’s description. I happily anticipated being able to solve the problem with the sympathetic and helpful teacher.
This evening I got the teacher’s reply, And it hit me like a sucker punch. The teacher didn’t dispute anything I said. She said that the note she got in the box completely agreed with the version I recounted. She said she doesn’t think it’s a problem that the boys draw pictures of Chinese people on the board because they draw pictures of the Simpsons as well. “They’re just having fun.”
She didn’t mention what the boy said to my daughter but she said that in general she doesn’t think the incident is important. She said she had heard the children laugh about “Chinese people“ and she doesn’t think that’s a problem. She said maybe I could do a writing workshop for her class.
I was concerned when my daughter told me about it. On the one hand, I wish my children would never have to be exposed to racism, either as a bystander or a target. But I am no longer the naive eighteen-year-old who used to think we lived in a post-racial world. It’s going to happen, and frankly, my concern was tempered by the small, relatively controlled environment of the third-grade classroom and my assumption of the teacher as an ally.
The teacher’s dismissal not only makes the situation many times worse, but it also shows me how much deeper the problem likely runs in the community. Hence my claim that dismissal and excuse aren’t some kind of benevolent mild fringe of prejudice but rather its fortifying center.
There is another scene that haunts me nearly daily from when my children were toddlers. Two family members had been making comments, saying they didn’t think I was “safe with kids” or “could be a safe parent” because of my vision impairment. I had never had a serious safety scare with my kids. My job involved teaching groups of preschool-age children. I had pulled a drowning child out of water four times and none of those was a child I was supposed to be watching at the moment.
I was very physically active and adept with many physical skills, and I was hurt by those comments. I was even more hurt by their practical implications, as I was prohibited from watching my nieces and nephews during my rare trans-Atlantic visits, it impacted my children’s ability to know their cousins.
One of the family members repeated the hurtful comments at the beginning of an extended family camping trip, and I could feel my whole world quaking. But I appealed to the rest of the family and asked for a family meeting. I was sure that with family consensus and the fact of my good track record on my side, I could be rid of these comments and the accompanying stigma.
My family has always been progressive and openly against all prejudice after all. My brothers and I were brought up to be independent and free-thinking. We always spoke out against racism and my vision impairment was rarely mentioned outside of medical necessities. We were the tolerant, accepting, progressive folks. And so I was sure I would be heard.
Instead I learned a bitter lesson.
The extended family meeting decided unanimously that I was overreacting. They agreed that there was no reason to doubt my safety with kids but also declared “neutrality” in the “argument” over it. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” I was told.
My defense of my parenting bona fides was deemed “disruptive to the family,” whereas the prejudiced remarks and discriminatory actions of other members, which actively harmed children in the family, were deemed “a reasonable matter of opinion."
I felt as though I had been frozen inside a block of ice. A week later, I got on a flight back across the Atlantic and the incident was forgotten by most in the family. Water under the bridge.
This was how I learned how much greater harm dismissal does than even the initial prejudice. And I swore I would never again dismiss prejudice when I happened to land on the more privileged side of the equation, as is the case with racism.
That’s why I speak out against it and hold my ground. To truly feel you love people of all colors and shapes is not enough. Even to try to be unbiased and kind is not enough. We must learn to listen when someone says our actions or the actions of those connected to us have caused hurt or appear to come from prejudice.
Certainly, disingenuous accusations have been made somewhere in the world at some time, but believing the vulnerable party is always the better bet. Redress is rarely more than saying with open-hearted sincerity, “I am sorry my words or actions hurt you. What can I do to make sure prejudice isn’t perpetuated?”
Even sincere acknowledgement costs little. The cost of dismissal, on the other hand, is devastating.