I spent the first 20 years of my life in the company of people of various ethnicities and differing nationalities. One would think that if I found myself today, alone in a room full of people of color, I’d be comfortable. I wouldn’t! Yet, there’s a contradiction, when I was 19, I found myself in a small Liberian jail cell, chicken wire walls and a five gallon bucket to piss in, with about twenty other Liberians, and it didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, I struck up a conversation with a one eyed thief sprawled next to me. The contradiction is familiarity. I had spent most of my youth in Liberia, most of my friends were Liberians. I recently attended a birthday party for a Liberian friends daughter, and I found myself comfortable in a room full of Liberians. If I were to find myself this afternoon in a room full of American blacks who were strangers, I’d feel out of place, and very uncomfortable in a way that would be different then if I found myself in a room full of white Americans. I’d like to attribute the difference to shared experiences, but I don’t have a lot of shared experiences with white people either. The explanation might be as simple as being most comfortable with people who look, and act as I do, shared life experience be damned. Regardless of who I find myself in a room with, I realize my discomfort. It’s not the fault of the people in the room, it’s who I am, for whatever reason. I own it, I don’t like it, but I accept it and I move on, refusing to let my awkwardness ruin my experience.
And that’s the thing about racism, it’s multi layered. I don’t consider myself racist, but why would I be uncomfortable in a room full of people of color?
I believe we’re all racist at some level, based upon fear of the unknown, the unexpected, or some perceived threat. It seems it’s easier to project those fears onto somebody that’s different then what you look like, onto somebody you think you don’t havemuch in common with. In fact, humans have a history, across many cultures, of utilizing that fear, of blaming others for their misfortune, or justifying their behavior. It seems to be rather easy for someone to step up to a podium and inflame a crowd of people.
Logically, I understand racism. Emotionally, not so much. Do we lack the introspection to dive, and it’s a shallow dive, to question our own discomfort, our unease, or our outright hate of a person who is different? I understand the fear of change, of the unknown, of what is different then the norm, but for the life of me, I cannot understand letting that fear dictate who I am as a human being, to the point where I would dehumanize another person, much less an entire race or culture.