“I’m a little bit racist,” Louis CK once confessed during a performance several months before he was jettisoned from our midst for bad behavior. “If I’m in a restaurant, and I find out the owner is a black guy, I say, ‘Huh, well, that’s good.’”
Abhorrent acts in dressing rooms in the presence of female comics aside, Louis’s admission should nudge us to reassess our insistence in our own complete, unassailable lack of racial bias.
I have. And I’m fairly sorry to say I, Greg Benson, am a racist.
But I’m not going to beat myself up too much about it. It’s just a component of being human.
We’re all assigned with the task of figuring out a huge, complex world, finding our way through it, surviving and thriving. It would be wonderful if the world afforded each of us the time to get to know each person we encounter individually. But we’re busy — or we’re scared of rejection or physical harm. So we make assumptions, or prejudge, others. It’s a necessary offense we commit against others perhaps hundreds of times a day.
I grew up in a rural area of Pennsylvania where there were practically no African Americans. I saw them on TV, however, and on baseball cards. I loved how Oscar Gamble’s and Gene Washington’s afros billowed out from under their helmets. My favorite baseball player was Willie Montanez, a hot-dogging first baseman for the Phillies. In spite of my dad’s warnings, I absolutely adored Muhammad Ali the moment I set eyes on him. On my TV screen, he was shown in a phone booth having an argument with Joe Frazier. He seemed so alive, almost cartoonish in his facial expressions and outlandish predictions about what he was going to do to his upcoming opponent.
I extrapolated these infatuations far into my surroundings. The first time my grandmother took me via mass transit to downtown Philadelphia, I found myself staring at the black passengers. I just liked the way they looked. I thought they seemed comfortable with themselves, and I admired the way they moved. More likely, I was just projecting things onto them.
When I played on a baseball team at the age of eight, I was thrilled to meet my first black person. Norman was our slugging first baseman, and he was silent and mysterious. In my wide-eyed naivety I reduced him to an noble savage, a run-producing machine, oblivious that he might be, as the only child of color in a lily-white baseball league, a quiet loner having a hard time of it.
That summer our family took in a black boy from Brooklyn as part of the Fresh Air program. We weren’t doing a radio interview show; the purpose of this Fresh Air program was to yank a child from the city and place him in a rural community for a few weeks and give him the chance to experience nature and culture shock. Dorian, shy at first, eventually warmed up to me and my two brothers and told us stories about life in the big city — and a few swear words we hadn’t yet heard. I was vaguely aware his family was poor, and hid my most prized baseball cards inside a dictionary. Would I have done the same if he’d been white and poor? I wonder to this day.
The beach-lined reservoir my family visited several times a year was used primarily by whites. But on occasion a bus would pull up, and suddenly the beach would be undergoing racial integration. I noticed moms sitting up and paying closer attention to their swimming children. Once, a black girl, maybe two years older than me, shoved me and yelled, “Outta my way, white boy.” For years after that, I assumed all black girls despised white boys. It saved me the risk of interacting with them. It was my way of figuring out the vast and scary world.
When I was in sixth grade and getting on the school bus that first morning, it was crowded, and I had to ask someone to slide over and let me sit down. In that seven or eight seconds, I made about a dozen prejudgments. There was a pretty girl in a pink sweater that I was sure would humiliate me. I quickly ruled out the greasy-haired guy in the leather jacket, certain he’d shove or trip me, or both. Finally, after a few more dehumanizing assumptions, I found a pimply kid with horn-rimmed glasses who granted me the ten inches of seat I desperately needed. (It was a good call; he didn’t beat me up.)
In my first seven seconds of middle school I had already reduced ten kids to cardboard stereotypes of themselves. If I hadn’t, the bus may never have reached the school. I might still be interviewing people on what seat would be most appropriate to inhabit.
Before my junior year of high school my family moved to a small town in middle Georgia whose public school population was 50% black. Internal segregation and its rules were long engrained in Perry’s natives, but lost on me. I kept finding myself in the wrong part of the classroom, hall and cafeteria. I took some mild abuse, but soon came to fancy I had more in common with black students than whites. I made the baseball team that spring, and on trips to other schools I’d ride near the back of the bus. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite break the color barrier — most likely because no one knew what to make of my David Bowie T-shirt and my funny accent. It was a lonely couple of years.
I made it to adulthood without making good friends with one black person, or getting robbed or assaulted by one.
I’ve given lots of rides and cash over the years to both black and white people. When I’m downtown and a black guy I don’t know approaches me and strikes up a conversation, I safely predict it’s going to eventually get around to him asking me for money or a cigarette. I’m assuming he’s poor and needs the money; he’s assuming I’ve got it to give. Despite a conversation where we pretend we’re more interested in each other than we really are, we have already categorized each other.
I don’t think much about how he’s going to spend the money. Nor do I give him instructions on what to do with it. My charitable gesture keeps on giving.
This encounter goes much the same way when it’s a white fella with tattered denim clothes and an unshaven face. Prejudice? Probably. Everyone, usually without realizing it, is constantly predicting what’s going to happen. That involves sizing up situations and people before firsthand knowledge is possible. It helps us move about a harsh world a little more comfortably.
In a society where nearly everyone has become political, most people look for who’s in earshot before airing opinions. (I find those who don’t do so rather coarse.) For me, if it’s black people and a few white guys with long beards, I don’t hesitate to express disgust with the latest antics of our narcissist-in-chief. When I see white goatees underneath the bills of ball caps, I’m more reserved.
“Sir! Hey, Sir!” A black man, about my age, clutching a spray bottle, is calling to or at me from across a parking lot. I just want to duck into the store and buy a frickin’ banana for lunch. But I have to look up. As a rule, I don’t ignore strangers seeking me out.
“Hey there,” I say, my hand on the store’s door pull.
“I can take care of those headlights.”
“That’s okay,” I say, smiling. “I’m good.”
“Let me just talk to you about it.”
“Okay, let me go in and we’ll talk about it when I come back out.”
When I reemerge, he’s talking to another prospective customer. For a second, I think I can make my getaway. I’m almost in my car when the man races over to me. “I have five dollars, I will give you five dollars if I can’t make those headlights clear.”
He’s got a point; they’ve been foggy for a few years now. The cause, I know, is inside the lens. I tell him so.
He smiles. “I know people like you. You’re always — ”
I get my dander up. “Wait, you don’t know anyone like me, okay?” I demand to be judged as an individual. I’m unique! How dare he lump me with anyone else?
I think the vast majority of us want that same kind of respect. It’s just not possible in a vast, complex world.
The man laughs and lets me go. “I’ll see you next time,” he vows. I’m fairly sure he won’t remember me.
Very few of us don’t bristle and lash back when called a racist. Some of us think to charge another with racism is an even worse form of racism than the original alleged racism. I think we should let ourselves off the hook. How about if we acknowledge we’re all racists, albeit of widely varying degrees? What if we all decided we’ll try really, really hard not to turn that prejudice into policy? How about vowing that, when we have the time and patience, we’ll get to know someone who looks different from ourselves?
If a racist like me can do it, so can you.