Seeing Colors

Some liberals used to pride themselves on not seeing race. No—we must see it and think about it.

By Michael Tomasky

Tagged race

In our just-ended summer of racial turbulence, I experienced my own little moment of zeitgeist. Nothing ugly happened, but the incident made me reflect on the privilege I carry around, and the weight that others live with but I do not.

In mid-July, I took my 6-year-old daughter, a keen lazy river enthusiast, to a water park. It was a pretty proletarian establishment, frowzy and cramped. The lockers and the bathrooms were right next to each other, which I suppose is logical enough, except that the placement of both forced dozens of people into a 3- or 4-foot wide space where they formed intermingling and very confusing lines for each. But it had a lazy river, by God, and a pool, and some water slides.

Eventually Margot asked to go on one of the slides. It was about 8 or 9 feet high—a little big for her. I was surprised she wanted to; I had an uncle who called me “Captain Cautious” when I was around that age, so it’s apparently in the genes. But she insisted she was ready to give it a go. It was actually two slides, side-by-side, and it was doing a brisk business that day. I directed Margot up the ramp and went to stand at the bottom, in about two feet of water, to receive her.

She was second in line for the right-hand chute as I was facing her, behind an older girl, maybe 12. But the girl wasn’t moving. As I studied the situation, I saw that over in the left-hand chute, a young girl, 4 or 5, had frozen; she was scared and didn’t want to take the plunge. The 12-year-old on the right side was trying to help buck her up. The smaller girl had another girl right behind her, maybe around 8 or 9—her older sister, I thought—in the left-hand slide, also trying to encourage her to go for it. The 12-year-old, it seemed, was a stranger who was trying to help.

If race relations sometimes seem worse, it’s probably because we are being forced to pay more attention.

Having sussed all this, I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I didn’t say anything for a little while. Then it got to be what struck me as a long enough delay that saying something wasn’t out of line—maybe 30 seconds or so, which is a long time for a process that normally takes two seconds (sit down, take a breath, slide). Margot was standing there getting antsy and confused, and the line behind her was lengthening. I finally shouted up to the 12-year-old something like—and I had to shout, because, well, there were dozens of screaming kids around: “Look, just move over to the other side!”She used hand gestures to try to explain to me what was happening. I yelled back yes, I get it, you’re trying to help, but you can just as easily do that from the other slide (despite the fact that there were already two girls there, it looked to me plenty wide enough to accommodate her). I was getting impatient, and I admit that I tend toward impatience in such situations. I yelled again. Finally, after maybe another 20 or 30 seconds, the little girl sucked it up and slid. The older sister and the 12-year-old followed. Margot got her turn, although she hesitated for five or ten seconds, but fortunately, only that long.

The three girls were African-American.

Margot and I went about our business, and about three minutes later, a 40-something black woman accompanied by a little girl—the same one who’d been afraid of going down the slide—came up to me. “Sir,” she said. She looked…serious. I thought uh-oh, does she want to start an argument with me? I got my back up. She started to speak.

“I just wanted to let you know that that girl in front of your daughter, she was trying to help my daughter here, who was afraid. I just wanted you to know that.” Her tone was even, not angry or even particularly hurt, at least that I could detect. She just genuinely seemed to feel that she owed me this explanation. She even said “I’m sorry.”

It was when she actually apologized that I began to put the sociological pieces together in my mind, at least as I comprehended them. I thought she was coming to me to chastise me for being impatient. Why did she think she owed me an explanation? And why on earth was she apologizing? She’d done nothing! It was one of those things. I’d forgotten all about it.

It struck me that in that brief moment, our races were all-defining. I’m sure gender figured into it, and there was undoubtedly some class element involved as well: She could probably tell by the way we looked—by my hands, which aren’t a working man’s hands, or by my daughter’s hair, or by those dozens of little visual cues that we all size up instantly in strangers—that we’re not working class. But it was fundamentally a racial moment. I thought about where she might work, whether she has a white male boss, how she’s used to white middle-aged men speaking to her.

Maybe she glides through life without any such troubles. Maybe she’s just an unusually solicitous person. Maybe she would have done the same thing with anyone, white, black, Latino, male, female, whatever. But it didn’t seem so. It seemed that her experience and social training had taught her that she’d better go up to this white man and explain things. It seemed that she felt that I surely had to be expecting such an explanation.

I relaxed my shoulders at that point and decided that an argument was the last thing in the world that needed to happen here, certainly the last thing she deserved. “No,” I said; “I should probably apologize to you. Maybe I was being a little impatient. We’re all just here trying to have fun.” I extended my hand, and she took it. I wished her a pleasant rest of her day, and she thanked me, and off we went. I am ashamed to admit that it didn’t occur to me until after we’d left that I should have sought out the 12-year-old and apologized to her, too, but it didn’t.

It was a non-event, ultimately, but for a few seconds there, I actually felt how racial conflict happens. I have my faults like anyone but I do generally go through life trying not to be a jerk to strangers. And I usually try to be a little extra considerate, without being showy about it, to black strangers; calling black men “sir” and so on. It’s just a little effortless piece of historical payback they’re due.

But if I had decided to be a jerk, or if it had been someone else who didn’t mind being one, it could have been a little racial . . . tiff: white man lectures black woman in public in front of a bunch of children (of all races; it was a very diverse clientele). And from there, depending on what happened in those two or three crucial instances where calmer heads either do or do not prevail, it could have blown up into a racial incident.

Because surely, this is how a lot of these things start. There’s a misunderstanding between two human beings. If both come from the same social stratum, it gets worked out. But if they’re different—particularly if one is white and the other black—then they often drag other baggage into the conflict, and things can go south in a hurry.

The summer featured lots of commentary, with Barack Obama’s presidency nearing its end, on whether race relations had improved during his presidency. The general consensus was that no, they had not, and in fact they’d gotten worse—witness all the rage over police shootings. Few commentators I read or heard tried to pin this on Obama, exactly, but the implication lingered in the air like a cloying perfume—we thought you were going to make things better.

I disagree with this consensus. I don’t think they’ve gotten worse. They haven’t gotten better, either. But I think things may just seem worse because we are being forced to pay more attention, especially with respect to police shootings. And when I say “we” in the previous sentence, let’s be honest, I don’t mean Americans; I mean white people. Black people can’t ignore race. Only white people can. And so most white Americans, even well-intentioned ones, have probably just never given much thought to what it must be like to live with the small slights that black people have no choice but to adjust to, let alone larger instances of outright discrimination. So when a police officer shoots an unarmed black man, it may take a white person by surprise, but I’m sure it never takes a black person by surprise.

That’s a big part of the current conflict, I think—since fear of, or at least caution around, police officers is so wholly absent from white people’s daily lives, most whites are never going to understand the black point of view on these questions. But now Black Lives Matter exists to try to force white America to understand that fear. And the shootings keep happening. And then that action spurs its opposite action, in the form of those awful murders of those police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. And the media do what they do, which is to hype crisis. And so it seems to many people that relations have deteriorated, but all that’s really happened is that we’re being forced to confront something that we (again, it’s clear which “we” I’m talking about) are usually able to avoid confronting.

That’s hard for society, and it isn’t made any easier by the current political climate and the presence of demagogues who want things to be worse because it gets them votes. But it’s necessary. Ever since America started confronting its racial demons in the 1950s, progress has been achieved only after wrenching debate that made it seem for the moment that things were worse. But then, after that debate, things sometimes got better.

That could happen in this case, eventually. There are small green shoots of hope here and there, for example in the emergence of greater efforts by police departments to screen for bias, and in advances in the technology of nonlethal weapons. But the debate is going to be lengthy and flammable, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office (although it can only be made worse if the occupant is a person who enjoys throwing gasoline on such fires).

While that plays out, the least that we white Americans can do is to not ignore race. Some liberals used to pride themselves on saying they didn’t see race, which I always thought was fatuous, more about white self-regard than the reality of American life. No—as I learned at the water park, we have to make ourselves see it and think about it. That’s up to us, not the President.

Read more about race

Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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