My internal message to myself for years had been, “I’m not racist because…,” followed by the reason why, of course, I was not a racist. I’m pretty sure I have said “not a racist bone in my body,” at some point in my life. If I thought about it, there were probably many reasons why I wasn’t racist. But I really didn’t think about it that much. I just knew I wasn’t racist. So, why was any examination needed?
I’m not racist, because I wasn’t raised by racists.
My parents aren’t racists and they never taught us to be racists. I never heard them talk down about people’s race, ethnicity, or other differences. I certainly didn’t learn to be a racist from them.
I’m not racist because I moved to a majority black city.
I have a deep and profound love for New Orleans, warts and all. I imagined, when I thought about it – but I didn’t think about it very often – that part of the reason I love it so much is because of the Black community. Everyone sees the music and the dance. But there are other small cultural differences like strangers, primarily Black people, talk to each other and greet me on the sidewalk and in elevators. I had never lived in a city where a person gets on the elevator, says “good morning,” and everyone else on the elevator says, “good morning,” almost in unison.
I’m not racist because I moved into a majority Black neighborhood.
I bought my first house in what was being called a “transitional” neighborhood – code for white gentrifiers are moving in. The house was perfect for a budding architectural historian. The price was right. The location was ideal. And the neighbors were friendly. I initially translated that as nosy, but I was wrong. If I were a racist, why would I move to a neighborhood populated primarily by Black people?
I’m not racist, because I grew up in a majority minority city.
In the 1970s, Las Cruces, New Mexico was roughly 70% Mexican, Mexican American, and Native American. I was insulted for being white. I was called, “Peliroja!”, “Gringa!”, “Fea!” and “Gorda!”. So, I thought I understood what it was like. That argument held up least well in my internal messaging. I knew there were plenty of white racists and prejudices against the local brown people.
My internal conversation changed after hearing a speech given by the first Black US president, Barack Obama, on July 19, 2013, about the Trayvon Martin ruling and the debate that stemmed from it. He talked about the experiences of Black men in the US — how they are followed in department stores and how people lock their car doors or cross the street when they see them. What struck me, though, was when he mentioned women clutching their purses.
“There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath,” the president said.
“That’s terrible!”, I said to myself, “I don’t clutch my purse!”, so very proud of my non-racist-ness because I am not a racist.
I don’t know how much time passed after hearing that line in that speech, but I was walking down Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans, near City Hall and the Superdome, when I caught myself clutching my purse! Yes, me, a certified non-racist, in my mind, clutching my purse because a Black man was walking toward me on the sidewalk. He didn’t look menacing or threatening. He was just a Black man walking down the street.
I clutched my purse and looked down at the sidewalk; and I realized this was not a foreign sensation. I had been doing it for years. Clutch the purse. Cross the street. Move away to the farthest edge of the sidewalk from the person, the Black person. And, most importantly, don’t look at them. Pretend they aren’t there. Look up in the sky, off in the distance or down at the sidewalk.
This last habit is the one that hurt that most, particularly with children. It broke my heart to think that I had been not seeing Black children. I was mortified. And it’s not just me. How many white people just don’t see Black children or look at them or interact with them? How must that feel to a Black child? They must feel it or sense it from a very young age and not even know what it is.
So, it turns out I am racist after all. I do have racist tendencies and racial biases. Where did I learn this? I have no idea. But it became abundantly clear to me, as I continued to observe myself, that I subconsciously thought of Black people, particularly young Black men, as dangerous, as something to fear, as something to move away from and give a wide berth.
I was so busy telling myself how not racist I was that I wasn’t paying attention to my own behavior and recognizing myself in the discussions of racial bias in America.
I now am very conscious of not clutching my purse or veering from my path on the sidewalk. I consciously look directly at people and say, “hello,” “good morning,” or “where y’at?” I go out of my way to greet small children, speak to strangers, say “good morning” to an elevator full of people, or answer if someone else does.
I’m afraid I have come to anti-racism late because I didn’t think it applied to me. I didn’t think I wasn’t racist. In my mind, I was already living an inclusive, non-racist life. As I continue my re-education and learn to take anti-racist actions, I encourage others to pay attention to your own actions, your own histories and your own interactions, no matter what you have told themselves about how woke you are.
About the author: Sara Orton is a 25-year resident of New Orleans. She is an architectural historian with a degree from the Tulane School of Architecture, and an avid supporter of New Orleans’ local businesses. She lives in a historic house Uptown with her husband and their chiweenie, Pablo.