thoughts on accidental racism and passing as “normal”

Someone in my FB feed posted this Sun Magazine article, “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” by Ross Gay. It’s a poetic and gripping read; both relatable and thought-provoking.

I especially like his points about how suspicion — of ourselves, of others — taints our daily interactions. He calls it suspicion, I think of it more as the white fear of accidentally appearing discriminatory — the microaggression perceived, rather then intended. What is interesting is that he points out that this suspicion (of self, of others) seems to be pervasive in all interactions, regardless of skin tone.

For example, when we lived in Centralia, there were a series of robberies. During that time, John and I went to the reservation store to buy smokes (because cigs were cheaper at the rez). While we were at the store, John and the cashier were making small talk about the robberies, and John made an off-handed comment about, “Well, what else do you expect around here?”

The cashier slammed the cigarettes and change down on the counter and snapped, “The robberies were committed by white guys.”

John blinked, confused by her sudden change in demeanor, took the smokes, and walked out of the store with me. As we got in the car, he wondered at her sudden bad attitude, and we realized she thought when he said “around here,” he meant specifically the reservation (and the Chehalis tribe residents). In fact, he meant the predominantly poor white tweakers that Centralia is sort of infamous for.

That’s the type of situation I call “accidental racism,” and I believe it occurs because we live in a cultural moment that — as this article explores — perpetuates suspicion of ourselves and others.

I do not have a solution or idea on how to address this. I wouldn’t for a moment even dream of suggesting that people should “just stop being so sensitive.” It is absolutely necessary that we speak out against discriminatory language and behaviors, even the ones that are often performed by rote and not out of a desire to be discriminatory. I mean, if we didn’t point out and object to discriminatory language and behavior, things would be a hell of a lot worse in our society right now.

Btw, I know some people complain about this change in language as too “p.c. (politically correct). I’m always amused by that, because as far as I can see, so-called “p.c.” language is just polite language. It’s a teensy bit like how I don’t see any problem with swearing and I think religious strictures against it are childish and silly … but I am still respectful to my religious friends and family who abhor swearing by choosing to abstain from the language they deem offensive while in their presence.

Anyway, back to accidental discriminations … I may enjoy the privileges society affords cis-gender straight educated white women, but I have also run into my fair share of stereotypes. After all, I am still a woman, and I did grow up diagnosed as having bipolar (and being treated for it).

I’m lucky. All I have to do is cut my hair and shut my mouth, and I start to disappear into the crowd, androgynous and unnoticeable. Small-breasted and short-haired, I am often mistaken for a young man. If I keep quiet and keep my head down, I don’t get hassled for being female, or for being a mental health ally. I can glide through life almost invisible, untouched by the stereotypes that swirl around about women and mental illness. On my motorcycle, with my full-face helmet, gear, and tall frame, I am even more androgynous. I can hide in my blandness, however temporarily, escape the stereotypes that define women and the mentally ill.

I do not wear cultural markers of “otherness” in the texture of my hair and the color of my skin. A cop will not pull me over for being bipolar while driving — a cop will not even realize I am bipolar. I have this respite from the discriminatory beliefs our culture still holds about people like me. Yet the tastes I have had of being stereotypes and “othered” have allowed me the space to imagine and empathize how awful it would be to deal with that every single day; to expect it. To have it be so common that it becomes a default understanding of the world, read even into neutral or benevolent interactions.

More times than I can count, I learned that if I shared my family background with mental illness, I would be told that mental illnesses aren’t real. I would be told to just focus on being happy, to sleep more, to eat right. To go on a strict fruitarian diet. To buy lights that mimic the sun. I would be told that medications and therapy are useless, that it’s all just a state of mind. Implicitly and explicitly, I would be told that mentally ill people are weak and selfish — that my mom, who was the greatest mom ever, was a bad mom. Weak and selfish for having bipolar, for committing suicide, for giving in.

When mom was alive, she told me never to tell anyone I was diagnosed with bipolar. She said people wouldn’t understand. She said they would treat me differently. She was right, but I didn’t care. I figured it was a test. Anyone who learned mental illness ran in my family and shunned me for it wasn’t someone I wanted as a friend anyway.

I didn’t learn to shut my mouth about bipolar until my mom died. I can handle the slings and arrows and suspicions when they’re hurled at me. But there’s no cause, no reason, no heart in speaking ill of my mom. She suffered enough. We suffered enough. There’s no need to hear people call her weak, call her selfish. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She battled bipolar for 20 years. She was amazing.

All I have to do is shut my mouth, and I don’t have to hear it. I listen, I observe, I decide if the person to whom I am speaking is compassionate about mental illness or not, and then I can decide whether or not to risk it. Whether or not opening up will result in being lashed at with idiocy and discrimination, or met with compassion. It’s like my own version of a closet. I pull the door shut time and “pass” as normal for a little bit, just long enough not to deal with uneducated bigots.

But people of color, they don’t have a closet to hide in. They can’t pull down their melanin and shake their hair free of texture in order to slide by uneducated bigots. They have to face it all head on, the bad, the neutral, and the good. And I know I have a hard time reading neutral or well-intended jokes/ sarcasm as harmless or teasing when I’m having a bad day. When my period cramps are acting up, and I’m on edge from noise, and I just want the world to recede for 30 goddamn minutes, but I have to go to the store to get this stupid thing I forgot. I can only imagine what it would be like to be having an already fucking shitty day, and then you go to work and some white guy makes a crack about crime in the neighborhood … yeah. I can see how sometimes when the world sucks balls, miscommunications like that happen, and its no-ones fault.

All I know is that sometimes I spout things without realizing possible alternate interpretations, and that I am grateful when grace and understanding is extended to me — so I feel it is only right that I extend grace and understanding when I speak clumsily or in ignorance and am met with frustration and anger.

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