Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Barriers and Bridges: On Perceptions of Racism

Cross Posted from Daily Kos (at the request of those who aren’t returning)

I grew up in a very well-to-do suburb in Marin County, California.  Marin is a pretty liberal place now, and was when I was growing up as well.  My parents were both transplants from elsewhere. They had met while working as reporters for the El Paso Times. My mother quit working when she had my older brother, then they moved out to California when my father got a job at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and then moved to the San Francisco Chronicle.  My parents and all of their friends were very liberal – I think that being a real reporter – on the street, doing your own research, and trying to follow the rule of objectivity – tended to push even those not previously inclined to be liberal in that direction.  When it came to race, my parents, both descended from what a friend once termed “a long line of Southern bigots,” were determined to raise their kids NOT to be racist.  This was not so easy when there was so little exposure to people of color.  

I remember watching the civil rights movement unfolding on my TV screen every evening, so I knew about white on black racism.  I learned that other races were targets, too, on the occasion that I was walking home with my best friend and we were attacked by a group of boys throwing dirt clods and calling my friend a “chink.”  I asked my mother that evening what a “chink” was, and she asked where I heard the word.  When I told her, she shook her head and explained that the boys were ignorantly assuming my friend (a Filipina) was Chinese, and told me that “chink” was a racial epithet (she probably said “bad word”).  My friend was pretty stoic about such incidents, which were not too common.  

For a long time I assumed that those boys were an anomaly.  As I grew up and moved across the Bay, I still thought I came from a bastion of enlightenment.  One day in college I invited a black friend of mine to ride the ferry with me to Sausalito, so we could down a martini or two and finish the conversation we’d been engaged in.  She told me she would NOT go to that town.  When I asked why, she told me that it was very racist.  I was shocked.  How could that be?  She patiently explained that it was not overt – it had for some time been “uncool” to verbally express any animosity towards anyone for their race in Marin.  It was their manner, the way she was looked at and treated when she went there.  She said in the South, where she was from, racism was rampant, but “at least they were honest about it.”  After she explained this to me I never questioned it.  I looked at the county where I was raised with new eyes.  She was my friend, and I trusted her. Who was I to question her perceptions, or her reactions to what she perceived?

To this day that lesson has stuck with me.  If a person of color takes offense at something that they deem to be racist, or if a gay person takes offense at something they deem to be homophobic, or if a woman takes offense at something she deems to be sexist, I trust their judgment. Not everyone coming from the same background will react the same way, some have thicker skins than others, but we should never deny the hurt in one person simply because we don’t feel it.  It is not for us to make that call.


  1. It is a great read.  

    I so much appreciate your candor, your honesty, your trust and moreso than anything, your willingness to question your assumptions even about your hometown, a place I’m sure is full of good memories for you.  

    Over the racial line, my dearest friends are those who I can be candid with and those who are willing to be uncomfortable when conditions call for it to show they are unconditionally my friend, friends who insist on coming into my world instead of always insisting we go to their spaces.

    Thank you for writing this diary!

  2. bubbanomics

    glad you posted over here too!  There’s so much work to do… best to try from many directions.

    Your ultimate paragraph says a lot for those of us in “the majority.”  I would strongly recommend that folks read about “stereotype threat,” something we in the STEM fields have to deal with.  It’s an insidious problem in which individuals corroborate negative stereotypes through social cues.  People who are reminded of their disadvantaged, underrepresented, or stereotyped status often underperform.  People of these statuses appear to be so sensitive to that state that they conform to majority expectations against their own abilities and self interests.  People of majority status need to appreciate and work to correct expectations.

  3. sberel

    and cross posting, as I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to read this.

    I very much appreciate you reinforcing the concept that you can trust the person impacted to know better whether there is some ism affecting his/her interactions.  I have to mention I get tired, sometimes, of the situation that white people have to tell other white people this; I’d like to see a day when most people can discern their own privilege, whatever it may be, and simply look to the person impacted by that privilege for guidance.  But baby steps … and this diary is a good one.

    I have a minor quibble with the term “still boycotting”, as it implies that there is some action out there that community could do to bring people back, or there is something that the “boycotters” want from that community.

    Speaking only for myself, it’s simply not so.

    Also there are people who don’t read there – to me, it’s better to just say it’s cross posted and leave it at that, jmo.

  4. If a person of color takes offense at something that they deem to be racist, or if a gay person takes offense at something they deem to be homophobic, or if a woman takes offense at something she deems to be sexist, I trust their judgment.

    I can NOT understand why this is an argument.  It’s why, as a white person, I participated in the DK boycott.  When racism is brought up, I don’t understand the need to say, “no it’s not racism” (or sexism, or homophobia, etc.) rather than using the occasion to listen.  Everyone brings something different to the table.  We must acknowledge that.

Comments are closed.