Ease, not discomfort, should be our aim.
“You know you’re a mud person, right, Zach?”
During my senior year of high school, one of my friends asked me this question point-blank during lunch. I was caught slightly off-guard, but looking back on it now, I am amazed at how composed I was while answering the question.
“Yes, I’m aware,” I chuckled, half-confused. “It’s the KKK term for non-white people.”
My friend, a staunch conservative and a white guy, asked me again, to which I gave the same response. After that, I recall him asking me the question again, although with less interest than the first couple of times. I did not think much of the incident at the time—the guy in question was a long-time friend after all—but reflecting back on it, it was only part of a string of racist insults that I took from that same friend during my senior year of high school, including “anchor baby” and “beaner.” I tolerated the insults because I am admittedly very bad at making friends (I am a hardcore introvert), and I was afraid if I ditched my friend group, I would not be able to find another group of friends to hang out with. I traded racial tolerance for social acceptance and comfort.
When my friend “jokingly” accused my mother of dealing drugs (because there was no way she could have acquired the wealth she has today on her own), it was the final straw. I disavowed my friend on the spot the second time he “jokingly” accused her. I isolated myself socially for the rest of my senior year and I was called a “snowflake” and “someone who couldn’t take a joke.” I ended up going to the dean of students, which was a huge mistake. The dean did not take me seriously, mostly because I was not even sure I was making the right decision, and my friend never got in trouble for the insults he leveled at me. And so for four months (basically, the entirety of my second semester of senior year), I sat alone in the school library because I could not take any more insults. I felt that something was wrong with me, that I mishandled the situation. When I went on a retreat later that semester, my retreat leader told me the same thing.
“Yeah, going to the dean was probably not the best move.”
For some reason, I agreed.
To this day, I still blame myself for what happened. If only I had handled the situation differently, I would not have been ostracized. Maybe if I had put up with the insults a little longer, I would still have my friends.
But I did not handle the situation differently. I did not put up with the insults any longer. And for some reason, I cannot find myself content with how things turned out in the end, even if the situation itself was unfair to begin with. I still think I may have messed up somewhere. But I have been reflecting on these incidents recently, and with that, I would like to share some thoughts about it. Because part of me is inclined to accept that I made the right decision, that I would not tolerate prejudice leveled at me.
The solutions to our race problem lie on a personal level.
To start, the worst part of all of this is that all of these racist insults were said in front of my entire groups of friends, who I might add were almost entirely white (except for one of my close friends, who was a white-passing Asian). They said nothing as they watched my friend humiliate and berate me for my skin color. Looking back on it now, it only adds another painful punch in the gut to the racist insults that I got while I was in high school, which was only a few years ago.
Now, I do not mean to throw my old friends under the bus for something someone else said. A person should be held accountable for their actions alone, not someone else’s. But in that same vein, silence is a consciously chosen action. My friends chose to remain silent when they could have individually or collectively put a stop to my friend’s racist insults. And so in that sense, while my racist friend (I use “friend” loosely here) should be held accountable for his insults, my other friends should be held accountable for their silence in the face of racism.
Of course, this might be just a minor hiccup in the grander scheme of things. It is perfectly reasonable that I could be overthinking the issue. After all, it was two years ago, and I don’t even speak with any of those friends anymore. But it has been a lifelong struggle to feel comfortable in my own skin, as it is for everyone. I have personally struggled to accept my skin color; I will admit, I have wished that I had whiter skin and have gotten angry that I was born with the brown skin tone that I have.
I should point out that my parents raised me colorblind (a common experience among whites, apparently) and taught me not to see race, but recently, it has become harder and harder to pursue that. I want to be clear: I would rather I live in a society that does not see skin color than one that does. I feel that it would lessen race-based problems, but the reality is (as was crudely shoved in my face with racist comments) that we do not and probably will never live in a “post-racial” society. We do see skin color and we do make judgment—consciously and subconsciously—based on race, whether we want to admit it or not. Color-blindness is a pipe dream.
Besides, I am proud of my family heritage, both the white and brown parts, European and indigenous. I am proud that I can trace my family’s heritage back to the British Isles and to pre-Columbian Mexico. I am proud of my mixed-race heritage, a product of my Anglo-American father and Mexican immigrant mother, both of whom I respect, admire, and love deeply.
But this is the point where I have to draw the line with race activists. While I may agree with their experiences (as mine mirror theirs), I do not agree with the conclusions or how they deal with race issues. For one, while I admittedly poke fun at white people every now and then, I try to refrain from using racial slurs as much as I can. And while I admit that I have been uncomfortable with my skin tone, I do not envy my sister, my father, or any other white person for having a pale skin tone. In both of these instances, I fail to see how putting down or envying other people helps my situation; while some people rationalize this by arguing that “white people need to be uncomfortable” in order for race discourse to move forward, I vehemently oppose methods I see as abhorrent in which that discourse is shifted. Method matters.
In conclusion, I feel that solutions to the “race problem” we have lie on a personal level. While not a panacea, friendship is vastly underrated in interracial relations. Again, friendship (and marriage) with a person of color does not automatically make someone anti-racist, but it certainly makes it much harder to be racist. Additionally, it would help everyone to acknowledge and distinguish between fact and fiction. And finally, I think it would be beneficial to emphasize the value of individualism, not as a mechanism for color-blindness, but as a way to invigorate value and pride in one’s family heritage. Individualism and racial identity do not have to be mutually exclusive.
To give an example of this friendship in action: I’ve benefited greatly from having friends from other races. There are some cultures and countries that I’m completely ignorant about, and I’ve learned a lot about those countries and their relationships with my own from these friends. It’s harder to hate people once you get to know them, and the same is true for cultures. Fundamentally, I would say these friendships are anti-racist because there is a mutual understanding that has to exist in order for it to flourish, that understanding being predicated on cultural and historical knowledge. If that factor is absent, that friendship cannot survive.
Racism is a crude form of collectivism that has survived in myriad forms for centuries. It could very well be the case that racism is so embedded in American society that in order to eliminate it, a complete upheaval is necessary to remove it. The emphasis on Euro-centric beauty standards, racial profiling, mass incarceration, targeted immigration quotas, racist comments, and segregation are all but a few ways that racism (or white supremacy) continues to survive in this country. I doubt that these issues can be eliminated without a serious movement to address them. But this would involve having to change hearts and minds over racism, and I think the current generation of race activists has failed to do that: they have only alienated those who would otherwise work diligently to solve these issues. Only when we lay out a clear vision of what we want without disadvantaging anyone can we begin to imagine a post-racial society.