The audacity of whiteness, or How I was trying to mind my own business

Despite my years now as an anti-racism writer/speaker and non-profit director, the moments when I encounter casual racism can still at times take my breath away. While I prefer to look more deeply at systemic racism and how we can move the needle on inequity, the reality is that systems are made up of people. After all, the criminal justice system is not run by a slew of advanced robots (yet), but by real-life people who bring their own biases and feelings with them every day. Biases that determine outcomes for other people. 

Increasingly, as my readership has grown, I have shied away from writing about my personal daily encounters with racism. In part because it brings out the trolls (and the cries of “Didn’t happen!” or “Get over it!”) and also because the daily microaggressions that I encounter are simply a daily reality for the majority of Black and Brown people. In other words, it is what it is. 

That said, I recently had two casual encounters with racism that I do want to talk about because they highlight the insidious nature of how racism lives in white souls and comes out under the guise of conversation—when, in reality, it is deeply ingrained racism bubbling over. And it’s not just racism; it’s violence. 

Recently I dropped into a local gathering in my island community—a casual, cross-generational affair, where conversations tend to be lighthearted. In other words, a space where I am not generally going to delve into my work. Instead, the conversations lean more towards the banal and frankly, in that space, I am OK with it. I don’t always want to be on. 

I was sitting with a group when someone mentions a holiday party they recently attended and how there was a former NFL player in attendance and he was a jerk. Everyone had a good chuckle as she described him. Until one person at the table, an older white woman, proceeds to go on a tirade about how the NFL is filled with “these people” who have no decency. They don’t even speak English, because all they can speak is “jive” and they have all these women and their fancy cars. 

Hold up! 

How did we go from talking about a former NFL player at a holiday party being a jerk to denigrating an entire group of people due to their occupation? Our old friend whiteness is clearly at work again and I will forever believe that alcohol for many is the truth serum as it gives them the courage to say what they really think. Furthermore, without even knowing the race of the guy we originally were discussing, it was clear that this woman was making a proclamation about Black people, since one doesn’t use a word like jive without racial connotations. 

In that moment, I quietly said to the white woman making these statements that perhaps these people had similar feelings about her and didn’t care for her either and I left a few minutes later. Unfortunately, none of the white people at the table challenged her inane comments and honestly, I wasn’t in the mood to engage. 

By the way, the asshole NFL player in question was a white man. I had a hunch that he was based on the nature of the gathering he was at but I later confirmed it with the storyteller. 

It may come as a surprise to some, given my work, but I really am not interested in providing a free lesson on race every time a white person puts their foot in their mouth, nor am I interested in getting pissed off. However those are the moments where I am reminded that there are plenty of white people who are willing to be friends across racial lines but they have neither the skill or interest in being an ally or accomplice. In other words, when another white person is letting their racism out, there is no cavalry to help a sister out. Lesson learned. 

While the incident has sat with me, it wasn’t until this weekend’s Uber ride where I encountered a rather brazen white man that I realized that I needed to release this. 

I woke up early this morning with the intention to drop into my favorite yoga studio for some much needed nourishment. That meant an early boat ride to the mainland and an Uber ride to another town. 

I ended up in an Uber driven by an older, chatty white man. While I am not against small talk when I am in an Uber or cab, I don’t seek out such conversations because inevitably, the conversation drifts into “What do you do for a living?” My standard answer is “I am the director of a Boston-based nonprofit” and for most folks that is enough. Sadly for me, my driver decided that driving the car wasn’t enough and decided to ask specifically what we did at my nonprofit. 

Truthfully, this line of questioning annoys me even more than the standard “What do you do” line, because I always sense a spirit of disbelief. A Black woman in Maine, the head of an entire nonprofit in Boston? I get it: In the white mind, that doesn’t compute. Shit, I might as well have just said that I am a unicorn. Hence I must be grilled to ascertain that I am being truthful. It’s white violence; it’s the insidious nature of how white supremacy operates. 

So as I explain what we do, I am peppered with questions on my work, which are too numerous to write about, but the conversation took an interesting turn after I referred to Trump as a white nationalist. To which my driver turns sideways (sir, we are on the highway, I need you to look at the road, if wanted to die, I could have driven myself) and says, I have to disagree, Trump is not a white nationalist, he is an American. 

Did I mention we are on a highway going about 60 mph? 

Finding out that your driver is a Trump man on the highway is not what I wanted or needed, but there we were. While I don’t seek out fights, if you bring the fight to my door, I will not back down. 

So we went back and forth as he proceeds to tell me how he started his own company 35 years ago and he worked hard and no one ever gave him a thing and how he hired all kinds of people and never even cared about their color. Harold (yes that was his name), how mighty white of you! Of course he had to share with me that he has been called a racist but that he isn’t a racist. 

Harold, if the shoe fits, you might need to wear it. 

I quietly explained that while I have no doubts that he worked hard and feels that he was self-made, that if we look at things systemically, that for every so called, self made white man, we can chart the data on how Black folks and other people of color are often not accorded the same access to capital, etc. that allowed him to thrive. I also suggested a few books to read, if he really wanted a better understanding of racism from a systemic point of view. 

Thankfully, I was able to shift the conversation away from race but at that point, the damage was done. My mood had shifted and I bailed on yoga and instead went to our family home and sat with the conversation I had just had. Hence this post. 

I was minding my own business and looking to engage in self-care this morning and this white man felt entitled to intrude upon my peace and in the end, detoured my day. That’s how microaggressions operate but in reality, they aren’t microaggressions. They are macroaggressions in more compact packaging. For white people, these actions are unseen or nothing but for Black folks and other people of color, exchanges like the ones I have written about are about chipping away at your humanity and right to exist. As I have often said, if I were a brain surgeon rather than an anti-racist, would ignorant white people feel entitled to foist unwanted conversations on me where they try to challenge my knowledge or how I do my job? Probably not, because I would be seen as the professional that I am. 

Anyway, it was just another day while living as a Black woman or a day ending in the letter y. As for my yoga class, I guess I will have to try again tomorrow. 

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13 thoughts on “The audacity of whiteness, or How I was trying to mind my own business”

  1. Dear Shay–I am a 72-year-old white boy. And Jewish. A friend posted your piece on her Facebook page. I’m very glad I had the opportunity to read your important statement. I’m so sorry you went through that terrible, potentially deadly car ride. And I’m sorry to read a few of the comments posted above. You have my respect and support. The same for the individuals who’ve posted here in support of you. I believe it’s essential for those of us who are white to speak out both against structural, systematic racism and against casual racism as in the incidents you’ve described.

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