Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Things White People Say

Yesterday I got my nails done.  (No, this post is not about how my white privilege allows me to earn the money to waste on this frivolity.) As I was sitting at the drying station, I found myself in a conversation with the young white woman sitting next to me.  Being a New Yorker, I don't usually talk to strangers, but she initiated the conversation so I went with it.  One thing led to another, and she asked me where I live.  When I told her, she complimented my town, saying what a nice place it is, and that her sister lives there, too.  

So far so good.  But then she added, "You have to drive through that one part of town to get to my sister's that's really scary, though."  She was referring to the older part of town that has a higher population of people of color than the rest of the town.  If there were a lot of criminal behaviors going on there it would reflect on the town averages, but crime stats are low for the town in general, much lower than the county and state averages. 

I didn't answer, so she kept going.  "Yeah," she said, "where my sister lives is really nice, but you should see the riffraff that she gets trick or treating on Halloween."  (I swear I'm not making this up.)  She never mentioned race, of course.  She didn't have to. She was using the code, and she assumed that, because I'm white, I understood what she meant. And of course, I did. If I had suggested to this person that her ideas are racist, I'm betting she would have been mortified.  

Of course, I'm complicit.  I could have questioned this young woman further.  I could have asked, "What do you mean by 'scary'?  Have you ever witnessed a crime, or felt personally threatened while in this part of town?"  I could have asked, "Why do you think the trick or treaters are 'riffraff'?  Have they banged on your sister's door, demanded more candy than she was giving, broken a window, thrown trash on her lawn, or behaved rudely in any way?" But I didn't ask any of these things.  I sat passively, albeit uncomfortably, and although I didn't agree with her, my silence gave tacit approval.  Because I’m white, and sadly, that’s often what white people do.

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