How Do We Talk About Racial Disparity Without Getting Racist?

At midnight you might find me downtown wearing a suit and tie, trying to clear loiterers from in front of an apartment tower. I work as a concierge, protecting the interests of the lucky folks—doctors, lawyers, pro athletes, news casters, section 8 lottery winners—who live in massive glittering apartment buildings with roof decks and private gyms, guarding their keys and packages, calling ahead for visitors and food deliveries, and watching out for alarms.

Sometimes a gaggle of cinema goers will hang out under an awning in front of one of the buildings where I work, avoiding rain or just shooting the shit, maybe rough housing if they’re drunk. When a obliterated couple tries to fuck or fight in a loading dock or a troop of revelers blocks the door while waiting for a ride or whatever, since residents come in and out of the building at all hours, I get to handle the reproach.

The best way to deflect conversation is to get racial. Engaging with nonsense gives it legitimacy, but we need to move through some racist noise. In my job, every once in awhile I get to be a token of white privilege, absorbing a retort: “We just got out of a movie, and you coming out here like, yeah, mind your business you Mensa ass racist.” I get it. I’m a door man. I’m not that smart, but please stand clear of the egress.

A week ago I asked a group of Hispanic college students (residents of the building where I was working) to calm down, stop wrestling and yelling “I can buy this city” in the street at 3am. Instead of calling police, I took a swing around to check exterior doors, and as I left one of them yelled after me, "Oh did we scare away Snow White?"

It doesn’t matter how gently worded, a rebuke from a white guy sounds discordant across the racial divide.

Being white, I inherit an odd privilege. Since wealth often passes through nepotism or direct bequest, old money disproportionately circulates through the pockets of white people. Racism hangs in the ether. It fills English with all kinds of devilish associations. A long list of injustices, not limited to each despicable incident of the European trade in African slaves and imperial conquest, established a distinctly American complex of unconscious bias. I see the bias in things like with my limited experience in private security there is no reason that I should have already been promoted to management. Then again, I know a lot of the older hands were offered my position, and didn’t want the hassle. Still I don't like the thought that my raises are not earned, and it’s hard to ignore the number of white college grads who cycle through management with a slight superiority complex. Some of them feel entitled to drive around between locations, full of youthful exuberance, loud ties, and vocal opinions on laziness, writing incident reports and how to sit through the night at a desk.

I’ll show up, sometimes, at a place where an older Black concierge worked for 18 years. He’ll joke, “We don’t need the overseer here today.” Meanwhile, I’m just reading incident reports, and trying to find out if the building needs any new equipment, contact updates, or if someone on staff is planning a vacation. I'd like to think that we're a team, because I'm just connective tissue between the various concierge desks around the city and the main office of the company downtown. I wish that the building owners would be more transparent about how they distribute wealth to their employees. I hate the idea of racial hierarchy on the job.

The MTV movie, Dear White People (worth a watch), expresses a popular theory circulating behind the ivy walls of elite universities that only European-Americans and Asians can be racist. The protagonist tells the Dean at her school, "Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system." Racism = Prejudice + Power:


Humorists like Paul Mooney and Franchesca Ramsey and academics like Michael Eric Dyson further flesh out the idea. The argument is essentially to redefine racism in institutional terms. This might encourage empathy as we consider the damning social statistics about systematic racial inequality in law and order, for example. Black people apparently get a bum rap all the way from preschools to prisons. Considering raw race-based data without an eye on history or considering the cumulative effects inheritance encourages racist conclusions. Defining racism in light of power is useful, but that doesn't exclude black people from perpetuating racism.

Power plays a role in racism, because bias from a position of power is distinct from the kind of racial resentment I see in the eyes of those black cinema goers that I sometimes have to kick to the curb (along with their white counterparts). A white roommate I had in the Navy used to talk about how disgusted he was when he saw black guys dating white women. This attitude affected my treatment of a very dark skinned black girl that I dated around that time. Unconsciously I'd only hang out with her at my apartment when my roommates were out. She picked up on my attitude, and it set off a few explosive arguments. Once she told me she didn't date black guys cause they made her feel dirty. My motivations for dating her were not so pure either. I kind of liked the feeling of moral superiority I got interpreting the sideways looks we got from old white couples (in southern Virginia), and the not so subtle seating delays and private booths in restaurants.

Institutional racial prejudice against black people is well documented and affirmed by the supreme court. Using a new definition, making racism applicable to enforcing (conscious or not) a racial hierarchy, the term "reverse racism" actually makes sense. Victims of injustice, given power, can easily become victimizers. But that's not quite what I mean. Anyone can be racist. Racism is behavior that affirms the authority of the dominant group. Reverse racism is something else entirely. Reverse racism expresses distress with entitled behavior.

For example, a white goes into a black barber shop. The nerve! One barber says he won’t cut this white guy’s hair, and another says, he’ll do it because luckily he has rubbing alcohol to sterilize the equipment afterward. Is that racism, reverse racism or hazing? It's hazing if the white guy comes back. It's reverse racism if the white guy leaves and never returns, if it's a rejection of integration. It's racist if it causes white guy to become a segregationist. But notice the power dynamic here. The definition of the behavior here is contingent on the white guy's reaction. This is why some people say that only white people can be racist. The majority of wealth and thus agency is on one side.

Let's remember, we're talking about language and the human mind. This is not a black/white, left/right issue. When we weaponize the word ‘racist’ to attack people who don’t really have much power, we make discussion about America's deplorable circumstance impossible. If society is racist, everyone is tainted. We have a terrible distribution problem, and race is only one convenient scapegoat in a much larger stratification complex.

Appearance, accent, culture and style have influenced public policy for thousands of years. Conflicts recorded in the Bible pit Hittites against Jews, against Canaanites, and Babylonians, and Romans and so forth. Reading ancient texts, we know that some of the most horrific tragedies, battles and genocides were perpetrated to avoid integration. We have this deep tribalism that just will not quit our brains.

Our supposedly merit based systems are rigged by nepotism and generational wealth (rich people also have dumb kids). It’s expensive to be poor. When you don’t already have money (to pay for a car, home repairs, child care, etc.) your time becomes vastly less valuable. Arkansas's rental system offers one example, where landowners can rent out hovels, ignoring routine maintenance, just collecting inflated checks while treating tenants like inconvenient vermin, and relying on government subsidized security and evictions. The home owners are mostly comfortably middle class, not rich tyrants, and this vicious cycle develops out of everyone trying to game each other instead of working together for a greater life. But this is only one part of a deep, and pervasive problem that may only get worse as well paying jobs get more technical. No one person or institution can distribute work and goods fairly, and the fruits of our collective labor can be so immense that it's hard to know how to divide our goods on merit alone, or even what merit means.

Precise language is more meaningful long term than insults and invective. Alt-Righters exacerbate a culture of offense by playing the victim, ego-bating, getting butt hurt when they're stigmatized, and resorting to obfuscating the word "racist" as a slanderous epithet, the "R" word.

“Prove that I’m a racist. I’ve spent my life helping black people,” says Maine's governor LePage while he insinuate race into the ongoing drug wars debate. When the word "racist" gets someone’s jock in knots online, I double down and get specific. When a commenter wisecracks about watermelon or the idea that anyone would stick tic tacs up their bums, sometimes I’ll respond with genuine concern for the person making the joke (weaponizing my empathy, remembering that 16-year-olds have both internet access and abundant time). Stereotypes mean to shame, making it easy for you to take the moral high ground. If you have the energy to respond to trolls with empathy and tact, getting into the trenches, remembering that the most careless words on the internet were generally written by people who are still alive and may be ego-driven to absorb your response, you might influence new trains of thought. Internet evangelism might work, but anyone drawn to a White Supremacist worldview probably has other issues, and harsh words from a stranger can also make things more tense and outrageous.

The only thing that will eliminate racism is physical social change. The important questions for now explore how we might encourage social justice on spaceship earth. Using SJW as an epithet can be useful, in view of all the absurd social justice grievances out there (including anti-abortion and anti-gay activism), but essentially SJW describes a blunt method for sparking debate: conflict. Create a story.

Some people believe in separation everywhere. This particular variety of SJW, the born again racist preaching hate and the virtue of national barriers, needs psychological help. We want to defuse their grievances by drawing attention to their mistaken ideas rather than their personalities. SJWs thrive on aggression and grievance. They aggregate moral authority by shaming others and inflating their own experience. The Alt Right adopts this tactic when they cite freedom of speech, insulting people and then complaining of persecution when they're called out for their bull.

Please, if you're too soft to live in multicultural America, deport yourself. Stop using guns, because your gunpowder was invented in Asia. Stop listening to jazz, blues and rock n’ roll, because that grew out of Africa. Hide in the hills and make your own culture from scratch. Stop pretending that life is a score card and you know the rules. As I lazily abrade the choir, devotees of race-baiting media like Brietbart, Alex Jones, Russia Today, and the like, clicked off on their gassy way long ago.

I am asking level headed Americans to reflect on how we might be propelling a racist system into the lives of future generations. Let’s take the logs out of our own eyes, examine them, and think about how they got there.

Many of our neighborhoods and public schools are still segregated. Why? Probably because integration is hard. Differences in accents and culture cause awkward and disturbing conflicts. An example: there's a rule in one of the buildings where I work banning bare feet in the lobby. There's a whole class of sub-letters in that building from the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen). Those kingdoms pay astronomical rents for their citizens to get medical treatment for cancer and so forth in Boston hospitals.

So, as a concierge, I end up becoming a conduit for vaguely racist complaints. Like if someone slips off their sandals while they're reading on a sofa in the common room, I have to remind them of the rules. The common rooms, and the roof deck all close around 11 pm, and the Arabic ladies like to have late meals together in these spaces. They talk loudly and they don't like men hanging around in their vacinity. This can get awkward for other residents, inspiring resentment on all sides. Since the older women speak hardly any English, their children often end up translating my policy reminders. It begins to feel at times like I am harassing them, as was the case one night, when I completely overlooked a quiet couple by the grill enjoying a romantic dinner, and told all of the Arabic people to leave. Generally I try not to harshly enforce the curfew, opting for the spirit of the law (to prevent suicides or drunken mishaps) as opposed to the letter. But the other night little kids were running around, and jumping against the railings of the roof deck. I told them to leave, and they asked why I didn’t confront the quiet interracial American couple in the corner. All that to say, our cross cultural communications are complex. We all still interpret things with some racial or at least cultural bias, just by virtue of context and our individual experiences. We often imagine that we can read other people’s thoughts through their eyes. We can’t.

We still live in a classist society, and sometimes we define classes by race. It’s ingrained in our language and in the makeup of our communities. It’s in the fact that many Europeans, Africans and Asians go to racially specialized hair dressers, and in the circulation of memes on Black Twitter like: "When light skinned brothers fall, they land like this ;)" or on White Twitter “Hey Hussein, quit Dixie Chickin our nation and go back to Kenya.”

Breaking this stratification complex will take several more generations of uncomfortable conversations. Redefining racism in terms of power can be useful to our conversation about human origins and dignity, but it does not immunize anyone from reflecting on their own complex attitudes toward the way other people act, dress, shave, tan or talk. I have racist thoughts pretty much every day. It takes a lot of energy and reflection to realize when my instincts as a white guy are wrong, and racist.

Confronting racist thoughts with good humor and grace takes practice.

If we accept the redefinition of racism in social terms, we are all racist. Some of us are also bigoted, and bigots are enemies of American culture. Racist memes affect everyone. They suck at life. But calling out racism is only useful when it provokes discussion. Sometimes it's better to just ignore racism and plow forward, as Obama did.

The relevant ethical question is how to productively confront specific instances of bigotry and unconscious bias in our society. We need to identify how racial thinking infects our actions, so don’t get defensive when someone calls you a racist. It’s just a statement about how you are perceived from another person’s perspective. In every interracial interaction, we need to learn to dig past appearance and find a way to discourage our natural energy-preserving tendency to be shallow.

The question becomes, is racism ethical? Is it ok to dislike someone, or to treat someone differently for superficial reasons? Race is only one element in the society of appearances. We fat shame. We style shame. It’s all part of the ruthless jockey for position that starts with hormones in high school. It’s part of humanity’s mating ritual, and for some people that never ends.

We need to fight against submissions to irrational hierarchies. The idea of pure blood needs to be taboo, because incest was never a very good idea, and that means engaging in uncomfortable tete-a-tete while being sensitive to how others interpret our actions. There’s always the would have, should have. For example I wish I turned back around to approach the rough housing drunks who called me Snow White, and asked if I should call the EMTs. But feeling "right" is just ego.

When “fight or flight” grips, take a breath and resist. Don’t be cowed by assholes. Call out racism, but remember that George W. Bush was also drawn as a monkey. Everything is not as racist as it may seem. Still we must acknoledge the overt racism of depicting black people as monkeys (invoking evolutionary inferiority), and realize the white burden, no need for guilt. There is sociological wisdom in the Hebrew concept of God, who “punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18). Life is not always so fair. So we all might reflect on how our actions affect those who follow us.

Right now race is a tool of hegemony. On college campuses minority students create racial cliques (Black Student Unions, Asian Centers) for a sense of empowerment. Private (safe space) discussions that ban recordings and so forth so people feel comfortable to be honest can be helpful. But the energy spent maintaining cultural groups also leaves the interest based groups (that add social capital) like student government, media and chess clubs to be dominated by white people.

Whatever we come into, it’s not from nothing. The immigrant, who having left behind everything, builds a business empire by willpower alone, is an American illusion. One in ten million gets so lucky, and their stories get heavily broadcast, but the reasons for success are tangible. You have to buy a ticket to win. Calling an entitled egoist, like Donald Trump, an ape recalls the fact that we all evolved in the same species (suggesting that rich white people also act dumb). Calling Barak Obama an ape evokes a completely different motif. Unconscious bias cuts many ways.

One last anecdote, and I'm through. Once, my phone died while I was walking, trying to find a bus station in a strange city. So I asked a black guy walking nearby for directions, and he said, ‘follow me.’

I followed him down a side street, lined with dilapidated houses. Walking past abandoned storefronts, after about 10 minutes of intermittent pleasantries and long stretches of silence, he lit a Black and Mild, and I fell a few steps behind checking the sun for a rough bearing. We snaked through side streets, and turned into an alley where a group of black guys leaned against a long brick wall. They nodded at the guy I followed as he crossed the street in front of them, and turned into the parking lot of an abandoned factory, surrounded by steel fencing. I glanced back and it seemed like the guys across the street were watching as we trudged toward the other side of the lot.

A service road appeared out of the broken black top, and the guy I was following turned right, toward a tunnel, grimy, graffitied, the only other exit from the parking lot. I fell further behind. Under a rusty steel bridge at the bottom of a road leading beneath some train tracks, three black guys drank brown-bagged beverages at the lowest depth of the dip. They dapped fists with the guy leading me, and I looked back. The other guys across the road were still there, lurking, passing around a blunt. The guy leading me talked casually to his friends at the bridge, saying something about buses as I approached.

My face went numb, and my feet turned to led, walking on their own in the inevitable direction I’d chosen when I decided to follow this guy. I thought about all the rough writing I hadn’t backed up on the MacBook in my backpack. The best escape was directly behind me, back up the slope I descended, over a fence into a train depot. As I walked amongst them, they nodded and smiled at me. I passed through to the other side of the tunnel. The guy I followed pointed to a squat parking structure. “The bus station’s there B,” he said with a few detailed directions before he continued to walk another way.

I left him, feeling hot, elated and free. And I wonder, would that trip have seemed so menacing if I’d followed a white guy through a white neighborhood? What if he was an Asian leading me through Chinatown? The risk would be no different. Yet as I crept through that neighborhood, nerves increasingly raw, everyone (even a few white folks) looked black. That’s racist.

We all have disturbing thoughts. We all think stupid things. Ruminating on wrong ideas causes chaos. Bad ideas are like pendulums in our minds. Once set in motion, they keep moving, unless we work to counter them. If we don't pay attention, bad ideas can knock us off our feet. First, it's important to be aware of what bad ideas are swinging around in our minds. We need to recognize our faults. It's not good to be racist, but awareness is the first step to overcoming our own contributions to racism.