Racism is a Jack-in-the-Box

by Kim Byas

I never know when that ugly clown of racism is going to pop up. I am just minding my own business, working in the world, talking to a client, and, “POP! goes the weasel.” Racism jumps out like the Jack-in-the-box toy. I have been experimenting with dialogue as a way to deal with this ugly clown.

I live and work in Evanston, IL., a city that embraces and values its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character. The chance of running into someone who thinks people of certain races are stupid, lazy, or apt to become criminals is very slim. The fact that I travel to other states, however, increases the odds of my encountering people who do think this way.

Take my trip to a Western city a few months ago. I was meeting with a business associate and we decided to drive to a local restaurant to have a quick bite. On the way, we drove through a section of town that is working-class and predominantly black. My associate, who does not know that I am half black, commented that most black men on this particular street seemed to be in no hurry to get anywhere. “Of course,” he said, “these guys probably have a nice drug trade.”

His comment struck me as racist because, as a white person, he thinks what he thinks, expresses his viewpoint as if it is true, and does not seem to think anything about making such pronouncements. What do I do with this attitude? How do I continue my working relationship with someone who seems to disrespect a whole segment of the population? How do I deal with him as my paying client? How do I think positively about him when he has just dismissed wholesale a group of human beings? His comment was directed to me, but this underlying attitude makes me wonder what he really thinks about me. Can I trust him?

No matter what we talked about over lunch, my mind and emotions were continually processing this comment, this expressed attitude of loathing. He did not physically harm anyone nor make his comment to anyone but me. However, I believe his attitude as a community leader does influence his support for public policies that impact the job market, housing opportunities, etc., for blacks in this community. In my mind, I translated this one comment into a policy that denies black people a fair chance to succeed, and is thus racist.

I know that my client is a good father and a smart leader in the hospital. The difficulty I have with him is that he has expressed a racist attitude. I can’t extricate myself from working with him, and I also cannot ignore his positive attributes. This incident has spurred me to actively work on our relationship. I have deliberately chosen not to get mired in anger and loathing. I look for opportunities to share my own views, for example, that the economy in this city might make it hard for young black men to get good-paying jobs, in a non-threatening way. At the same time, I make an effort to engage in a dialogue with him to deepen my own understanding of why he holds such negative views of young black men in the neighborhood. Rather than dismiss him entirely (which I could not do anyway), I want to see if we can share our viewpoints.

Maybe dialogue is one way to bridge the precipice toward which our society seems to be rushing. Maybe dialogue will help us understand that all these years of fighting and killing each other is really about our own fears and insecurities. Once we acknowledge them, the need to blame the other, get angry at the other, or kill the other will go away.

I pray so.