I am racist. There I said it.
I am a racist because I grew up in a racist environment. The messages I heard ever since I was young have been racist. There is no other way I could have turned out. I know it’s on me to change it. I might never get to a point where I feel I could say I am not a racist. I don’t feel guilty about that, just sad.
My black friend was known as Chini. I never knew his real name. At that time, I never thought to ask. He was just Chini to everyone and everyone knew him. I never knew where Chini lived. I knew the neighborhood he lived in and it was not a place people enjoyed spending time at. So I never been at his house.When I turned 18 I was living in a tiny little apartment with my then boyfriend. And whenever Chini was near, he would drop by to talk and listen to music and otherwise just hang out.
That tiny apartment had 2 doors and one window. The window looked out at a narrow alley that went to the back door. The dining table, which doubled as computer desk, stood under the window. We didn’t use the front door because a small love seat was placed in front of it. Our friends knew that and would all walk to the back door. Except when Chini came by he wouldn’t walk straight to the back door. He would stand at the window to see if we were in and only walk on once he got our attention. Most times I would be sitting at the table doing something at the computer, hear something outside, look out the window and without fail get startled seeing him there. Or, more accurately, I would see parts of him -eyes and teeth in a grin, like the cat in Alice in Wonderland- in the second or so it took my eyes to adjust from the bright screen to looking out into the dark, unlit alley. More often than not, before I even said “hello” I would say to him “Don’t do that! You scared me half to death!” And he would laugh and come in and we’d have a great time.
Of course, the next time the same thing would happen, because what should he ‘not do’? Don’t be black? Don’t look to see if we were home? Don’t make noise? Had I wanted to solve the ‘problem’ I would have asked the land lord to put a light outside. I never asked.
One day a neighbor from the same apartment block talked to me to say I should ‘do something’ about the alley. She had seen a ‘choller’ (local word for addicted person living on the street) walk out of it. That concerned me. It wasn’t a great neighborhood, we had some problems with break ins. And even though we didn’t have much, just a stereo and a computer, we of course didn’t want to see it stolen. Later in the day I was thinking about what she said when suddenly I realized what had happened. She hadn’t seen a ‘choller’, she had seen Chini. The guy wasn’t homeless or addicted. He was just poor. And had dreadlocks. Instead of being offended, I thought it was funny and laughed.
Less than a year later we would move away from that tiny apartment. I don’t think we ever told Chini our new address. He never stopped by at the new place. He was the only person I considered a friend that I couldn’t get in touch with. It was then I started thinking about how Chini was treated differently. And it never even occurred to me I did that while he was in my life.
Over the next few years, when I moved from Aruba back to the Netherlands to study, I started to accept the fact that even though I thought all humans had the same value, even though I made friends with people from all races, even though I fell in love, had children with, married -and yes later divorced- a man who is not white, I am still racist. In the unthinking sort of way.
When I saw a group of Moroccan youths behind me and a group of youths in cammo-print with shaved heads coming in from of me, I crossed the street. Turned out the 2 groups greeted each other as friends and happily walked off together.
When the only place I heard Papiamento spoken was in the coffee shops (the kind where you buy weed, not drink coffee) I was not surprised.
Accepting that I am racist is a good thing though. Since I know it, I can be aware of it, catch myself in thought patterns that are racist by habit and adjust them. Allow for a more conscious second impression instead of going with my first. Make sure I present a different message to my kids as the one I got growing up.
Over time, that works. When I took a test a few years back, I was happy (and a little surprised) to see it came out that I was only a little racist. For me that’s awesome. I am sure that if I had taken this test in my twenties it would have come out very differently.
This story got inspired by different white women in 2 different social media sites saying with some certainty: “I am not racist”. Really? You’re upbringing as a Gen Xer white woman was that much different from mine? Look, if it’s true, then that’s fantastic. I hope it’s true. I don’t want racism to exist either. But saying that it doesn’t exist isn’t going to make it suddenly disappear. Denying that you grew up racist isn’t going to make your bias disappear. That only happens by working for it.