Most of us were schooled in diversity and acceptance. A racist, therefore, was generally a forbidden character who shows up in someone else’s state. Among close friends and colleagues, color differences evince nothing more than variety. From a distance, however, any of us might easily disregard a color spectrum’s nuances in favor of a facile opposition between black and white.Last year, when Barack Obama was elected a friend told me that she found herself wanting to walk up to random black people and shake their hands, as if some boundary separating light from dark had suddenly dissolved, as if there was an impulse toward humanity that hadn’t been there before. In its dissolution, we were all experiencing the veil whose existence we were forbidden to acknowledge. We, white liberals, overcame racism by making it someone else’s problem, not our own.
Last year, many whitish skinned people, n fact, saw people with darker skin tones for the first time. The same people who appeared the day after the election had been on our streets and in our doorways the day before. We simply never saw them, these unknown dark bodies, painted onto the frescos of background scenery. Turning living, breathing, three-dimensional people into flat images on the basis of skin color is, of course, racism.
I had never thought of myself as a racist. Yet, since President Obama’s election, discovered forbidden racism’s hiding place – not in the rabid, white sheet wearing bigoted symbols of the south but in the quiet whispers of behavioral practices. This racist was me, a woman who simply had become accustomed to a type of color blindness, a blindness that ignored the size, shape and contours of anonymous black people and their stories.
How did I discover this racism? I was crossing the street and encountered a truck attempting to turn into my crosswalk. Just as I was about to glare at the driver – you know, just another black worker from the dark recesses of nondescript otherness attempting to violate my personal space – I imagined President Obama and the truck driver’s dimensionality emerged from his anonymity. He was a man. He was a man with a complex and fully meandering life – maybe he had a daughter who wore yellow daisy barrettes in her hair, a mother who scolded him to pick his clothes up off the floor, or a father who walked stiffly to a corner store to buy his son a piece of candy, and maybe he was disappointed the first time he fell in love, or could there have been an old beat-up trumpet in the back of that truck?
The driver and I looked at each other, me really seeing this black man as something other than a racial caricature. I raised my shoulders and opened my arms toward him, wondering if I should continue in the crosswalk. He indicated that he would wait to turn until I crossed the street. Thank you, I smiled. Your welcome, he nodded. We were strangers. We didn’t know each other’s story but my newly born ability to imagine his made me realize how many people become insidiously flattened over a lifetime.