Last week I was away from home for a few days attending a meeting in another city. I stayed at a hotel, an international chain, which is known to cater to government officials and business people. The morning I was checking out, there was no customer service person at the counter. A moment later another guest, a White male, also came to the counter wanting to check out also. I was dressed in business casual attire, while this other guest was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. Where I was standing, I was directly in line with the office doorway where the hotel employee would have to exit to approach the counter, so I would therefore be the first person they would see. Until they reached the counter, they would not have seen the other guest. After a couple minutes, an employee exited the office, saw me standing there, smiled and said “good morning” while approaching to serve me. As she approached the counter, she saw the White male to my right and made a detour right over to him and asked if she could assist him. He pointed to me and informed her that I was there waiting before him. She then walked back over to me and asked what I wanted.
Last week, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter caused quite a stir when he claimed that “an overwhelming proportion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, he’s African-American.” Now I don’t know if this is true or not. What I observe from my perch in the Great White North, that is known as Canada, is that the intense health care debate south of our border, as well as most or “an overwhelming proportion” of the fierce opposition to President Obama’s goals, particularly from within his own party, is more complicated than just putting it down to simply “racism”. However, from my life experiences and observations, race is certainly a factor… an everyday unquestionable and unavoidable factor… in how Black people are perceived, regarded and treated by the wider White society… especially subconsciously!
Now I would not claim that the hotel employee was a “racist” (maybe she is, I don’t know her personally), nor that I was the victim of a “racist” incident. Her actions didn’t appear to even be a conscious decision on her part. She didn’t look at me … and then at the White guest… and then stop and say to herself: “I will serve the White guest before the Black guest”. In fact, I would describe her movement from me to him as being “hypnotic”… it was as if she was “conditioned” to react in a certain way to specific stimuli. It appeared that once she saw a white face, her eyes glazed over and I ceased to exist. She even appeared a little startled, like it was the first time she was seeing me, when he pointed to me and informed her that I was there.
In the Section where I work, I am the only Black person out of approximately 20 people. Within the Bureau that my Section is attached to, again I am the only Black person, although there are a couple other “people of color”… aka “brown people”… out of about 120 people in the Bureau. I have been given the opportunity to be a supervisor within and manager of my Section. In these roles, I have had my opinions and decisions questioned and even challenged openly by some of my White collegaues, including other supervisors and managers, in ways that I have never seen experienced by other White supervisors and managers. There is an underlying, I would even refer to it as a “conditioned” lack of respect, civility and adhering to protocol in regards to Black leaders by White subordinates and/or peers, which manifests itself in various ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes in uncontrollable outbursts such as the: “you lie!” outburst by Republican South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, during President Obama’s address to both houses of Congress.
The problem with Jimmy Carter’s statement is that it’s true… but not in the way he meant it. It’s a blessing and a curse. This is the problem when White people speak as some sort of self-anointed authority or expert on issues of race, which they haven’t experienced nor perceived… which they can’t understand nor articulate… from our point of view! These so-called “white liberals or progressives”, in most cases fail to see and/or acknowledge their own “white privilege” and it’s contribution to the subtler forms of white supremacy thinking and behaviour… and even if they are that aware and honest, they rarely will give up this “privilege” for the benefit of their Black brothers and sisters.
That is why Obama can flippantly dismiss Carter’s statement. While some of the opposition to President Obama is certainly based solely on racism, those are easier to discredit and discount, although they may still pose a danger. However, most of the opposition is a conditioned (dare I say subconscious) reaction to his race. Subtle difference true, but this is more insidious and therefore more dangerous. This is what is more difficult to discredit, discount, address, much less fight against.
If I called the hotel employee or any of my White colleagues “racists” and told them that their actions stemmed from “racism”, they would reject it outright, tell me that they grew up with Black people, that they have many Black friends and how they sponsor a child in Africa through World Vision or their church mission program. On the other hand, if I tried to explain to them that they were “conditioned” to react towards me (and by extension other Black people) based on the color of my skin… due to white supremacy thinking… and that they would certainly treat me differently if I were White, they would look at me as if I had 3 heads, spoke gibberish and came from Uranus!
When President Obama states that “race” isn’t an issue in the health care debate, or that criticism of him is not based on the “color of his skin”, it is this influencing factor of “race” within the wider (whiter) society that he’s really attempting to discount. Although politically advantageous in the short term, in this he is wrong… and he knows it… which in some ways, ironically does make him a “l..r”.
I have linked this Harvard Implicit Association Test here before, which supposedly calculates biases and indicates preferences based on factors such as skin-tone and race. Follow the links to the “demonstration tests” and then proceed. I wouldn’t assert that it’s conclusions provides an accurate profile in any way, but it’s an interesting quiz to take.