end_racism_thru_unity1 “Now, I’m not a racist but … .”  Don’t you just dread to hear that opening? In most cases, you have been forewarned that the next few words you’re going to hear will be cringe inducing.

It is a sign of progress, maybe, that people now feel compelled to make those kinds of disclaimers. There was a time, now thankfully receding in memory, when white Southerners in particular felt no need to mitigate the meanness of their remarks before launching into the vilest comments. We can all be grateful that blatantly racist remarks are far less common in the South than they used to be. Yes, even in the Barack Obama era, some unreconstructed people in our region — and far more than many of us would like — still cling to extreme views on race. But even in those circles people with an ounce of sense at least know enough to be careful about when they openly express their opinions.

But we’ve still got room for progress, and in the meantime, how are we supposed to respond when people lapse into casual racism?

All of you will have your own stories. But over the years some of my worst experiences have been with white people from the North who think, because I am a white person from the South, that I will understand when they express their decidedly low opinions of black people — or other minorities — as a group. In those cases, I don’t generally have a question. The best response is a rude one. These people are not only stereotyping African-Americans but also stereotyping white Southerners by assuming all of us have sheets with hoods hanging in our closets. They need to be stopped short and set straight.

Closer to home, the more troubling experiences are those where in an otherwise friendly and jovial conversation someone makes a passing remark that has little to do with the general thrust of the conversation. You are talking, for instance, to a distant cousin you see only at the occasional funeral or someone who happened to go to high school with your wife in Alabama. “Now, I’m not a racist but … .” And, as soon as he has made a quick statement confirming the prejudice he has just denied, he has moved on to another topic.

Do you stop the whole conversation, think of this as a teaching moment and deliver a lecture — which is sure to be well received — or do you just let the comments slide even as you feel a little slimier for having been involved in such a distasteful exchange?

I’m asking this question now because of a conversation that in some ways was even more problematic than these examples. In a taxi on the way home from the Atlanta airport last night, my wife and I began to chat, as we usually do, with our driver. He was black — a Nigerian who had lived in Hungary for three years before moving to Atlanta to work as a cabbie eight years ago. On the seat next to him were a well-worn Bible and a book of facts about American government.

He likes his work, he told us, but he worries that the job is dangerous and that customers can be volatile. Many customers argue about their fares. Some even refuse to pay. And, just last week, he said, a driver he knew was shot and killed by a passenger in broad daylight.

“And do you know who are the worst customers?” our driver asked, not waiting for an answer. “They are black people.”

“It is so bad,” he said, “that I just won’t pick up black people any more.”

“Really?” my wife asked, stunned.

But, yes, he was emphatic, although he did go on to clarify that he meant black males from their teens to their early 30s. Some good kids and young adults I know would fit that description, and our driver, though black himself, was clearly engaging in racial profiling.

He’s not an isolated case, either. An African-American businessman who moved to Atlanta from California told me not long ago that he hires Latinos but tries to avoid hiring black workers. His reasoning: Too many blacks are on drugs, he said.

So help me out, please, likethedew readers. How should well-intentioned people respond in moments like these as the long march for civil rights and full racial equality goes on?

Keith Graham

Keith Graham

Keith Graham was among the recipients of the prestigious Stella Artois prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival. Named for a blind piano player, he is also well known for always giving money to street accordion players. A quotation that he considers meaningful comes from the Irish writer Roddy Doyle: "The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height." In addition to contributing to Like the Dew, Keith frequently posts quotations and links and occasionally longer articles at http://tartantambourine.com/

  1. Cliff Green

    The cab driver was engaging in racial profiling. But should we well-intentioned people ask him to stop and die in the middle of the night?
    To prove…what? That we white people are superior to cab drivers? I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

  2. Billy Howard

    You’ve hit the big southern question square on the head and it is probably impossible to respond with a single answer. It has as many answers as there are people fighting for justice and as many answers as there are otherwise good intentioned people sideswiped by their own circumstances, like the cab driver, whose stereotypes unfairly target one person while in his mind protect him from perceived danger (which in his business does not necessarily make him paranoid.) His life is more vulnerable, riding around in a car, picking up unknown people who may or may not want to do him harm and the buzz around him may be more difficult to ignore than the intellectual and quite correct argument against it. All that said, it takes a strong stand to begin the conversation and I applaud you for it. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to begin. I suspect it will be messy, but an argument we all learn from. Thanks for having the courage to start it.

  3. Melinda Ennis

    How many times through the years have any of us of a certain age experienced that cringe-inducing (and shameful) moment you describe so well? Do you create a scene at a dinner party hosted by friends of your parents? Do you walk out? Or, do you quietly say that you don’t appreciate such comments? I have tried the latter, but I admit, not to much impact. Luckily, I don’t think my sons have ever had such an experience and would be bewildered to encounter even casual racism.
    The Nigerian cab driver story is indeed a problem I wish any of us had answers for. Racial profiling keeps black men in suits from being able to hail a cab in NYC (I’ve seen this myself when traveling with an associate). On the other hand, one could argue that all police work in history has been conducted based on racial profiling (“black youth holds up liquor store ” )—So who are they supposed to look for—middle-aged white women? I wish any of us had the answers. But I think common sense has to rule. I don’t think the Nigerian was acting out of racism, but from experience.

  4. I prefer to make them awkward via the long long pause. Then as soon as the tirade is over, excuse yourself in some manner calculated to make them feel ridiculous. “OK, I’ve got to go stare out the window now, nice talking to you.”

    This, yeah, you can’t do with a taxi driver. I would have just acted like I’d never heard such a theory as his. “Really? What makes you say that?” etc.

  5. Hi Keith,
    Interesting questions you raise. As an African-American, I would have responded to the Nigerian taxi driver because we could have discussed the long and painful history between Africans and African-Americans, and the misconceptions on both sides. But as a white American, I don’t think you had the tools to respond with anything more than the shock that you and your wife registered.

    On the other hand, if a WHITE person were saying racist things, as in the other examples you give, you, as a white person,would have a responsibility to speak up. Even if it causes a scene. Even if it starts an unpleasant debate. Even if it ruins dinner. I believe white people are too often cowardly about speaking up against racist views that they don’t share. In cases like that, you are the best people to speak up because if I–as a black person–speak up, I’m often not heard. Instead, the white person who’s making the racist comments will label me as “overly sensitive” or as an “angry black woman.” So African-Americans are often not in a position to effectively challenge white people on racism and be truly heard. That’s the role and responsibility of good white people. If you don’t speak up, your silence may inadvertently signal agreement (to the racist and to others looking on), and, at best, it allows the racism to live on, unchallenged. As MLK Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

  6. Tim Oliver

    The exact same thing happened to Rita, and I, when we were leaving a concert, downtown, last fall. A black cab driver, African immigrant, picked us up, completely ignoring a young black couple who hailed him, before us. I paused, but, opened the door, and tried to usher them in, and the driver yelled at me “No, YOU get in, NOT them !” I was embaressed, and gave the obviously angry couple a sad shrug. When I shut the door, as they both cursed the driver, he said “No, you will rob me and kill me !”
    Talk about a buzz kill. I felt completely inadequate as to how to respond, but, it was his call, and, his life.

  7. Ariel Harris

    as one half of a bi-racial relationship in the south…i can only say i wish we had a webcam on us at all times! it is shocking how most people react to seeing us a couple…at a school we worked at for years…we had a policeman pull out his gun when he saw Jamal..can you imagine? can you imagine having to think about whether or not you can even say a casual hello to a tot passing you by without fear that you will be held as a child molester?
    i met a black male pediatrician who shared that story..and he is a doctor!
    as for racism disappearing…not on your life! it is well..and institutionalized and woven into every fabric of american life. how do you stand up to the invisible? and would you?

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