My son’s friend, Daniel, called me a racist the other day because I made a joke about immigration. I said something “clever” about Mexican warlords and immigrants. I corrected him condescendingly and said somewhat dismissively, “no, I’m not a racist; I’m race conscious.” He looked at me for a moment and said, “what’s that mean? That sounds even worse than being a racist.” I was about to launch into an elaborate explanation of what it meant to be race conscious, when I suddenly realized he was absolutely right. He really got me to stop and think: is my saying I’m race conscious really just a cover for my own insensitivity? Was not what I said, in fact, racist?
First let me say, my relationship to those who, on the surface, are different from me is pretty well documented. I strongly believe we all deserve the same opportunities and we must demand fundamental changes in the system to make that happen; institutional racism should have no part in a modern society. And secondly, all things being equal, which they aren’t, I strongly believe no one is more or less capable of anything because of their racial, ethnic or sexual makeup. In fact, the idea that race, or sexual identity would have any bearing on who I might expect to perform a certain way, is absurd and abhorrent to me. I consider any cultural, class or educational differences mostly a question of form, not of substance. I am aware, however, that our differences sadly have great significance to some people, but not to me. When I used the term “race conscious” it has been in reference to bringing about a deeper awareness of the deep racial divide that plagues our society. As far as my personal relationship to race consciousness, I sincerely enjoy and relish in how we are all simultaneously the same AND different from one another. Diversity is extremely important to me. I don’t look down on those who are different from me, even as I accept the tragedy that these differences often lead to conflict. The question remains, what can I do to mitigate these conflicts as we look for ways to celebrate our differences? I also realize that without these breakdowns in race relations there will never be the needed breakthroughs our society thirsts for.
So, how is it possible that my son’s friend saw me as a racist? Did he not realize that I see all these superficial differences as an absurd joke played by God, as in the Tower of Babel, to show us silly humans how we are all at our core the same and that our best interests are inextricably connected? Is he not aware of my advocacy work against racism? How could he not know that I believe we are first and foremost always entitled to fundamental human rights and dignity? Couldn’t he see how amusing I find the suggestion that we are in any way, fundamentally different from one another? Wasn’t it obviously apparent that I find our cultural diversity beautiful and exotic? Did he not know that as a creative, it as my job to explore and point out these, and other “differences,” in new and sometimes profound ways, so as to bring about insight, to make us think, with the goal of bringing people together and ultimately appreciate one another and live in peace and harmony?
The answer to all of the above is of course not!
I think the key word in the questions above is “ultimately.” I think that may be the sticking point. In retrospect, my pointing out our superficial differences in order to show how similar yet different we really are most certainly appeared racist, at least on the surface. After all, I had just met Daniel. We didn’t know much about one another’s background. So when I made an off the cuff remark, without taking the time to get to know much, if anything, about him and his experiences involving race and immigration, I most certainly ran the risk of offending him. With no opportunity to have a real conversation about the delicate subject of immigration, it is hard to imagine how my comment could not be taken as offensive. Trust is something that is built over time; it must not be assumed or taken for granted in any relationship.
Without an opportunity to engage in a complete dialogue on the subject, without proper context or resolution, I can begin to see how my poking fun at our differences might be hurtful. It was like dropping a bomb and letting it just float in the air. The assumption on my part that my casual remarks should be understood in the context of some implied shorthand of a much more loving, inclusive and deep understanding of how our differences and similarities make us more beautiful and valuable, etc. is naïve at best, and quite likely very hurtful.
So I immediately apologized to my son’s friend and told him I would reevaluate what I mean when I throw around the term “race conscious.” I think it’s actually a good thing that we no longer live in a time when we could expect others to assume our intentions were benign. It occurs to me now that perhaps we never really did live in such a time. I also find myself seriously considering how my casual, hyperbolic comments may not be as nuanced and sensitive as I once thought. Thank you Daniel for pointing out what perhaps should have been obvious: listen more and speak less.