Racist is as racist does

You see all kinds of things at Wal-Mart. Just last week I witnessed something disturbing. I was at a Wal-Mart in southern Virginia – the South, not the Deep South – and I noticed a horrible thing. I was with my family and my mother-in-law, and every time the white folks and I passed a black shopper in the aisle, they made a point to steer extremely clear of us. I brushed by one black man between displays and I said, “Excuse –“ but he’d already huffed off.

I complain about Seattle a lot, but one thing I don’t see there is racism. I’m sure there is some racism, especially in the Seattle police department, if you follow the news, but I have never seen the kind of open hostility that I saw in Virginia.

I can see why it happens. White against black bigotry is the rampant in southern Virginia, so I can see why the black people there wouldn’t like white people. If I were them, I’d be defensive too. But as a non-bigoted sort of white-looking person, I resent being judged by the color of my skin. Does that sound familiar? I think a certain black civil rights leader uttered something similar once or twice.

There are not a lot of black people in Seattle, but there is a mutual respect among blacks, whites, Asians, and everybody else that’s refreshingly comforting. You see a lot of mixed-race couples of all combinations there too, and nobody bats an eye. When I lived on the East Coast, mixed-race couples, especially black and white couples, faced a lot of bigotry. It didn’t come from everybody, but sadly, it was fairly common.

But in Virginia, I felt the hostility emanating from black toward white. And I know it went both ways. Being with a neutral group of white folks, I found the hostility unnerving. It didn’t make me angry. It made me sad. It made me sad that there is so much mutual anger and hatred that these people – black and white – who share the same town, can’t stand to be in the same aisle at Wal-Mart.

As a society, we’ve worked so hard for racial equality. There’s no place for racism in a civilized society. But it perpetuates. It’s passed down from generation to generation. A couple of years ago, we had a young visitor from southern Virginia who couldn’t stop saying ugly things about Mexicans. He said he was joking – he expected us to laugh – but he wasn’t funny. I asked him why he was so full of hate and he couldn’t give me an answer. The answer was that he grew up that way. Racism is a time-honored tradition where he comes from, and with both sides perpetuating it, it won’t go away.

Even worse are the people who take advantage of racism. I don’t know what really happened with Trayvon Martin, but once Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson slap the racism label on something, there’s no going back. They use existing racism to their advantage, and that’s sad too. Cultivating hostility to build a following is sick and it’s wrong. And it goes both ways as well. It’s exactly what white extremist groups do.

Sadly, I can’t change anyone’s deep-seated beliefs. I can only be responsible for my own family and set my own example. My kids play with everyone. Sometimes I don’t like their parents, but I base my preference on who they are, not what they look like. I can also choose my kids’ environment. I don’t want to live anywhere where racism is the norm and not the exception. And when we do run into racism, I can educate my kids, because ignorance is dangerous. When we go to Wal-Mart, we share the aisles with everyone.