written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Tiffany Pridgen
Until recently I didn’t consider myself to be much of an activist. I’m pretty even-keeled when it comes to most things. I’m not political. I’m not radical. I play my cards fairly close to my chest.
Then something happened and changed my mind. I realized that I’m a different kind of activist. I’m not the kind that carries signs or makes speeches. I don’t demand that people shut up and listen. I don’t suggest that I’m an authority.
I’m the kind of activist who makes gentle statements in everyday conversation.
Sometimes I hear or read some parent expressing concern about something that happened to them that put a blip on their racism radar. They’re not sure if it was really racism, or if it was just hypersensitivity on their part. Inevitably, someone (who has never been in the situation of the person initiating the conversation) chimes in and tells them they’re overreacting and that they’re reading too much between the lines.
Generally I stand back and let things resolve on their own: I give people a chance to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they would feel in a situation. Sometimes they never get there. They think inside the box too much and allow their own limited experiences on a subject to cloud their judgment of what happened to another person (much like how people downplay your medical concerns telling you that “You’ll be all right” when in reality you have a ticking time bomb inside). Then I interject.
I don’t get confrontational. I try to explain, the best I can, and as generically as I can, that asking people to ignore history is impossible. If a situation occurs to make a person uncomfortable it’s because they have knowledge that is aligned with their survival instincts that they tap into whenever they feel threatened. My instincts tell me that if a stranger reaches a hand out to touch my son without my permission I should draw him back for his safety. But, there are also instincts that tell us to protect ourselves from hurtful words and intentions. Those are bit more difficult to draw back from.
Sometimes, only the person who commits an act or makes a statement can verify if it was intended to be racist (if they’re even conscious of it themselves). However, attempting to extinguish conversation about whether or not an event qualifies as racism is a disservice to us all. Killing the talk prevents people from becoming enlightened that subtle acts of racism (e.g. back-handed compliments about appearance, language, behavior, etc.) are just as insidious as the ones that are out in the open, and if left unfettered can erode our trust in each other.
We’re all responsible for educating each other about what we find to be insensitive and doing our best to explain why. The extra education is important for people who would say that worries are groundless and that we needn’t fear because “That’s not what racism looks like.”
Those who choose to listen will not be so quick to dismiss the conversation the next time they find themselves in a discussion that begins with “Is this racist?” They may even become activists themselves.
Tiffany Pridgen is the mistress of snarkymomma.com: a blog where she recounts daily the joys and frustrations of being a modern momma. She lives in Durham, NC with her son and husband.