Yesterday I heard the term “polite racism” being used. I know something about that. I was born in 1957. I grew up in various upper middle class white, mostly WASP, suburbs in Ohio. I did not see a black person until I was seven. She was our housekeeper. Her name was Sophie. She was the first adult I ever called by her first name, not “Mrs.” anything. It wasn’t until I was an adult, actively doing anti-racist work, that it even dawned on me that this was weird. This happened in Rocky River, outside Cleveland.
The second time I saw a black people I was on a bus with my maternal grandmother. We were going on a shopping trip in downtown Cleveland. A black mother with her baby sat in front of us. Grandma said “oh look at that cute nappy headed baby.” Again, it wasn’t until I was an adult, actually doing anti-racist work, that it dawned on me that she was objectifying these people and, wow, the hair thing. That’s a whole other blog post. Until I moved to New York City, at the age of 20, those glimpses were all I saw of black people.
Notice I said “I saw black people.” That is a lie. I did not SEE them at all. I looked past them, as I had been TAUGHT to do, all without a word having been said. Nobody ever said blatantly racist things. I never heard the infamous “n word.” Nobody ever said anything blatantly derogatory about black people. Nobody ever sat me down and said “Now, you know, you are better than negroes (we said “negro” then), cleaner, smarter, higher class, so be nice to them but don’t think of them as equals or, heaven forbid, authorities on anything.” I just KNEW it. Fish don’t talk about water. White people don’t talk about race. We just swim in it and, as we are swimming, we learn the polite racist gaze, the one that looks, but doesn’t see what is all around us.
Until it erupts in our face. I remember watching the March on Washington on the small black and white TV in the living room of my paternal grandparents’ farm house. The only black people (actually, they called them “colored”) in that community lived “down the road a bit” What road, I did not know. I just heard that they “made a lot of noise” in their church. That’s all that was said about black people in that house, until the day they “made a lot of noise” in Washington DC, enough that it was on television, pre-empting Lawrence Welk. I remember my grandpa, who never rose his voice before in my hearing, slamming his hand down on the arms of his chair and saying “I just don’t know what the colored people want!” That is the problem. None of us knew. We were polite racists, too polite to realize we were racist at all.
When Martin Luther King died, four years after I met (or didn’t meet) Sophie, we were all sent home early from school, for fear of riots. My parents cried. They said he was a great man. They meant it too. They knew there was something really wrong about our country and they wanted to change it. But it’s hard to change what you cannot see and, like I said, polite racists don’t see.
When I was a teenager, in High School, we lived in Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. At the time, it was all white. There was one black face in my class, an exchange student from Kenya. That’s it. But nobody said the “n word.” In fact, no one talked about black people at all. We were too polite.
My dad worked for Ohio Bell at the time. When time came to hire a sales manager, he found the most qualified person was a black man. So, against great opposition, he hired him. The two of them looked forward to working together. Living in the same neighborhood was another story. There were houses for sale on our block but, strangely enough, none were “available.” It was then that I learned that even *our* home had been purchased under an illegal “restrictive covenant.” I always thought the block association was all about cookouts and stuff. Apparently there was more. Apparently, as we were swimming in our polite racism, looking past black faces, we also had been swimming past a whole lot of red lines, including the ones we drew ourselves.
Something in me knew something weird was happening, but politeness made it hard to see. Until the day, at age 16, I picked up Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” All I “knew” or thought I knew about him was that he was a violent person who should be dismissed in favor of the much more “reasonable” King. Except that is not what I saw when I read his words. This black man, whom I never met, who never lived in Upper Arlington, Ohio, and who wasn’t even alive at the time knew more about my life as a young white woman than I did. Why? Because he was on the outside of the fish tank looking in and he could see what we were swimming in and he named it – White Supremacy – and he said he would rather deal with the blatant southern “cracker” than deal with our polite racism. Hello.
That day, forty years ago, was my first step out of this thing that was killing my soul along with so many black bodies. The memory stays with me. I erupts anew when I hear words like “polite racism” and I have to confess, once again that, yes. I know something about that. I know those deadly waters. I am still trying to get out of them. That is what fuels my anti-racist work, the deep desire to do better, to live better, to be better.
On this anti-racist journey, there is so much I do not yet know. But this I do know – polite racism kills. It kills just as surely as blatant racism kills. In a way, it’s even worse because it is so easily disguised. Those of us who are swimming in it have a hard time seeing it, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t drowning in it and killing lots of black and brown people in the process.
White people. We can do better.
Time to drain the swamp.