I spend a fair amount of time studying racism in order that I may be more aware of it in society and in my own life. The ultimate goal being to eradicate it as much as possible from my own life and, maybe, bring some awareness to the people in my world. So, I consider myself to be somewhat aware of racism and intentional about seeing and refusing to be subject to it. I know it is not possible to be completely free of racism having grown up white in a racist society, but I am trying...
And then something will happen, something usually very small and subtle, to remind me that I am still relatively clueless and living in a fantasy much of the time. I suspect most of us are as well.
I was shopping for handbags (pocketbooks for my NY friends) with my dear friend, Melinda yesterday...a chore of which I am not especially fond. I have a hard time "pulling the trigger" on bigger purchases and handbags (good ones that will last) tend to be pricey. Melinda does not share that problem with me. Her collection of bags is probably worth as much as my (fairly new) car. Not kidding. She carries the likes of Louis Vuitton (multiples), Michael Kors, Kate Spade, and Coach on a daily basis...and rarely do I see her with the same bag twice in a week. I, on the other hand, have 3 and together their value might equal that of a decent coat.
While we were shopping I saw a lovely Coach bag that was on sale and the price did not make me want to faint. It was a really beautiful bag and I asked Melinda her opinion. She said, "It's beautiful! But you know you could not take that on the train in some of the neighborhoods you're in. It would be a good bag for when you take your car or are not in the city." I did not expect this response. I work in New York City quite a bit and take the train whenever I am there. I asked her why I couldn't take a bag on the train...I was genuinely perplexed. She responded, "You'll get robbed." My head spun. It never occurred to me that my purse would make me a target. I just don't think that way.
Then I remembered Melinda's stunning collection of designer bags and I asked her why she carried them into the city....bags that were 5x as expensive as the one I was currently considering. She said (matter of factly, without a trace of sarcasm or anger), "Oh, people just assume it's a knock off when it's me."
Me: "Are you kidding me?"
Melinda: "No. They just can't imagine a Black woman could afford the real thing, so it must be a knock off, right?"
And then I got angry. My chest constricted, my breathing got shallow....I was pissed.
Even as I write this I can feel the anger and frustration in my body. I'm angry that we as a society assume that a person of color could not be smart enough to have a job that would earn her more money than her white friend. I am angry that my wonderful, beautiful friend knows at her deepest level, without having to think about it, that people, all people, underestimate her just because of the color of her skin. People assume she is less qualified, less intelligent, less successful simply because she is brown. And she knows this without having to think about it. And worse, she accepts this because she has lived her whole life in this racist society. This really pisses me off. Deeply. Pisses. Me. Off.
We spent the next hour talking about what bags would and would not make me a target and why. I was fascinated and horrified...like watching a car wreck...I couldn't walk away. I could not (still can't) let it go...I live in a world where a bag defines me...and either makes me a target or not. And I live in world where an amazing, brilliant woman cannot be seen because of the color of her skin.
I didn't buy a bag during our shopping trip...but I learned a great deal about the subtlety and pervasiveness of racism. This was far more useful...