WEB Dubois said the greatest challenge of the 20th century will be the color line. Lately I’ve been reminded–repeatedly it seems–just how relevant his words remain in 2004.
The first color to challenge me in this tale is blue. Because of a snag in paper work, what should have been a simple transaction–switching Blue Cross insurance policies from my former employer to an independent Blue Cross policy–became a nightmare.
I was told that the already month delay would be longer as Blue Cross needed to see my old medical records–even though I have been insured with them (Blue Cross) already for 5 years.
To make matters worse I was heavily blanketed in bed with the flu upon discovering I was uncovered by insurance.
The young woman at the doctor’s office gave me the bad news and insisted it could not be resolved by phone. And being forced to gather paperwork from my doctor’s office to expedite the process only escalated my fever.
If things weren’t bad enough, the woman on the phone was rude, abrupt, and in my mind, unhelpful. At the time it escaped me that maybe my being rude, impatient and annoyed at being told I was “no exception” might have had something to do with it.
Needless to say after receiving the news there would be no preferential treatment, my tone was not one of gracious acceptance. Since she seemed unmoved by my displeasure, perhaps I was not the first grumpy patient she had encountered that day.
When I arrived at the doctor’s office, the busy and somewhat distracted, elder, pale-faced woman at the front desk informed me that although I was told otherwise on the phone, my medical records could not actually be released for 72 hours. I would have to make another trip. “That’s the policy–no exceptions” she said.
Once again, I did not greet this news with the equanimity I would like to claim but rather, I huffed and puffed and pled my case.
In rather dramatic fashion, I described my travails of sickness and misfortune and hoping to gain pity mentioned just how unforgivably curt the woman on the phone had been–forgetting to mention that I was rather brusque myself.
Somehow the words spoken to the woman behind glass took on a magic quality. I could see it in her eyes. I had broken the spell. Hallelujah!
Suddenly softening and becoming interested in my plight she said “Do you by any chance remember her name”? When I replied that I didn’t, she seemed non-plussed and with rising determination and a smile she leaned in and asked: “Could you tell if she was Black?”–emphasizing and whispering the word ‘black’.
This was certainly not the first time I have experienced these hushed tones when referring to race and although I was hesitant to respond to her query, I replied that I had no idea what ‘color’ she was but that I guess she could have been black.
As if playing a Vegas hunch, she quickly punched a phone number and within seconds was talking with someone, whom it seemed, was conversant in my situation.
Her nod assured me her suspicions were accurate as she insisted into the receiver that I needed to discuss my urgent situation with someone–now. The person on the phone was apparently unimpressed and unconvinced and once again indicated that I was no exception to the rule.
As she plopped the phone back onto the cradle, the woman behind glass, my ally, said with disgusted exasperation: “black people”–as if this explained everything.
The words reverberated through my entire nervous system with the cold realization that I had been swept into something I wanted no part of. Her arched eyebrows and matching tone suggested that she and I were in this together–we were both comrades forced to endure the anger and un-cooperation of all people of color. Yes, we were the victims.
I could now feel another color rising–it was red. I was ashamed that I had allowed myself to be snared into this conspiracy and I was angry that this woman thought we shared an opinion that was distasteful and absurd–not to mention blatently racist. And at that moment I was aware that my particular brand of white privilege had once again spilled out and was dripping all over the front desk.
The degree of comfort this woman felt in making such a remark–and all that it implies–heightened my nauseous condition. She assumed that she and I agreed that all black people are difficult and uncooperative and angry–and for no reason.
I was reminded again how so often whenever whites are challenged by people of color who disagree with them or assert authority over them in a particular situation, it is often interpreted as ‘getting even with whitey’ rather than a difference of opinion.
I had heard these very words spoken just rently in a political meeting with some white liberal activists fighting against a predominately black district who is inviting a major corporate conglomerate into the neighborhood.
Not allowing for the possibility that those in the neighboring district saw the situation differently, the white liberals interpreted the opposition as having nothing to do with a logical argument. It was simply “a blatent racial issue” and a response to “whitey has beaten us”. That the liberal white group was imposing their views and values on the other district seemed not to matter or be part of the equation.
Just like the white activists, it seemed not to register to the women behind glass that perhaps it was I who had behaved unreasonably. After all, I was the one expecting exemption from policy rules.
In spite of this woman’s absurd generalization and obvious distaste for her black co-worker, I wondered if she was aware and/or cared about the significance of the latest figures from United for a Fair Economy. Figures which reflect how people of color, whom she greets and works with every day, are affected.
Did it matter to her that Black unemployment is more than twice that of Whites or that White households have an average net worth more than six times that of Black house-holds? Or if current rates of incarceration continue, one out of three African American males born today will be imprisoned at some point during their lifetimes.
While one might argue these statistics are unrelated to the situation in question, the findings are relevant when it comes to understanding the stresses that continue to challenge many people of color everyday. Not to mention the added stress of dealing with people like myself who very often behave as though procedures and policies rules are really meant for “others” and expect special treatment.
I have learned in toxic matters such as these that immediate and direct responses are the only antidote to stop conspiracy from spreading. I leaned across the desk and politely, but firmly said: Her response has nothing to do with being black. She is probably having a bad day–just like me”. And what I neglected to mention was how I had contributed to making her day difficult.
It was then that I saw her color change. She appeared flush with embarrassment or perhaps indignation that I had intimated that her perspective was not founded on science or absolute truth.
At this point the woman became hyper-efficient and formal. I had obviously struck a disturbing nerve and our relationship clearly shifted from comrades to strangers. Perhaps it was fear or even betrayal. The fear that her words conveyed how she really felt and that somehow she had miscalculated by exposing herself to me.
I couldn’t help wondering just how many times I have made someone else’s job harder or unpleasant–regardless of their race. How many times my insistence on “having things my way” may have caused someone further alienation because of my impatience, self-righteousness and deluded perception that I deserved special dispensation.
And then it struck me how these qualities were the same ones I have railed against and abhorred in our current administration’s foreign policies.
In these lucid moments the ever-widening gap between races and classes is painfully evident. And even more clarifying are the deeply racist precepts that greet us fresh out of the womb, and unless challenged, will mature over a lifetime and then suddenly erupt, bursting our self-righteous bubble of delusion. We are not really who we think we are–and it is deeply unsettling.
To most people classified as white, the notion that any one characteristic like arrogance or rudeness could be attributed to all whites is absurd and unfair. And yet this how people of color are labeled all the time.
Quite often white’s are heard referring to groups–not in the majority–using language steeped in white supremacist ideology–a code-talk if you will. Most commonly featured is the word ‘they:’ “you know how they are”, “they are so angry”, “those people are lazy” or “they’re such hard workers”, as if there is such a thing as a “they” rather than individuals possessing particular qualities or attributes.
And worse than the conspiratorial tone and insidiousness is the fact that most other whites unconsciously engage in the code talk frequently and without hesitation.
While obviously offensive and inaccurate, this kind of code talk further perpetuates and continues the same tired old stereotypes which have always been inflicted upon people of color. And then we imagine just because these notions generally go unchallenged in daily conversation–because it’s too uncomfortable to confront– that somehow our racist assertions are accurate and justified.
Most whites I know become insulted and indignant if they are ever lumped in with another group or judged because of someone else’s actions. It’s “un-American”–whatever that means–and yet, we all, in our own way, continue to inflict it on those whom we perceive as different from us, every day.
No, it’s not just a ‘white thing’. Everyone does it. But because racism = prejudice + power, the effects are felt more severally when done by the dominant majority group.
At the end of the day the color I am most challenged by is ‘whiteness’.
Feeling compelled to make amends, I called the doctor’s office to apologize to the young black woman for my rudeness. I knew it wouldn’t change much but perhaps acknowledging my behavior would serve two purposes:
Admittedly, appeasing my conscience about having contributed to someone having a bad day not to mention helping perpetuating the myth that all black people are angry and unreasonable. The other reason was that if I did apologize, perhaps I would behave more consciously next time. And if nothing else, maybe taking responsibility for my own behavior might somehow ease the young woman’s load–at least for that day.
Unfortunately, since I had never bothered to inquire, I couldn’t ask for the young woman by name. And as fate would have it, the elder woman at the front counter recognized my voice and intercepted the call. I never accomplished my mission.
Unable to garner a quick fix and escape feeling bad, I was forced to think about the situation and my participation in what happened and perhaps how I might behave differently next time.
When I think about W.E.B. Dubois and how right he was about the greatest challenge in 20th Century America, I wonder if he meant the 21st Century as well.
Molly Secours is a writer/speaker filmmaker and television host of “The Not Just Talk Show” in Nashville TN firstname.lastname@example.org