As a boy of about 10-12 years of age, my dad took me and some of my siblings to the circus at Boston Garden. Like many such sport centers, it had several balconies. As we were being seated, I noticed that the top balcony was filled with, persons we call today, African Americans. I asked dad why that was so and he simply said that, that was “N____’s Heaven.” Because I had never heard that expression, or any other expression of its kind, in my family or among my friends, I sat in my seat pondered the meaning of his words. In a few moments I was distracted by the unfolding show…...
Later in life, I reflected that this discrimination was part of the culture. No more to be questioned than the air we breathe. And so, this young, white boy, and so many others like me, grew up carrying that prejudice -- as part of his DNA, you might say.
I suspect that people of color carry similar prejudices against others, be they “white”, a different religion, class or ethnic background. The workshop mentioned above, however, taught me that the difference between my prejudice and that of people of color is that, as a white, American man, I am part of society’s power structure. People of color are in positions of inferior power while I am not. In our society, it is not possible to imagine the top section of Boston Garden to be relegated to “Whites Only.”
Allow me to offer another example: a woman friend and I stopped at a gas station where she bought a candy bar. After she paid and we were about to leave, she said , “Oh, I forgot my receipt.” I said, “Linda, it’s only a candy bar.” She responded assertively, “Bob, I am black.” At that moment, her sense of her position in society became clear to me despite the fact that she was employed by a major consulting firm and commanded a six figure salary. I knew at that moment that my lacking a receipt for a candy bar would never be a concern for this white man.
That workshop taught me three facts:
1. Racism equals prejudice plus power.
2. Race is an artificial construct. Anthropologists tell us that, scientifically, there is no such thing as “race.” When people pass overland, skin color and features change gradually. The leader of the workshop I attended helped me and other attendees deal with this concept by asking us to write a list of all the things we like about being white or another race. I really couldn’t think of anything other than I seem to get a good tan when out in the sun. Then she asked us to write down a list of all the things we liked about our culture. Music, poetry, language, food, etc. immediately came to mind. Different cultures do exist but not races she reminded us.
3. By definition, all white people are racist. WHAT???? This was the hardest thing for me to accept. It took me many years to start to get my heard around this concept. This doesn’t mean I choose to be racist. Rather, as a white man, I am, by definition a racist, that is, I carry a position of power that persons of color do not. “White privilege” it’s called.
I have spent a good part of my adult years fighting against racism. But it is always true that I am part of the dominant race. For this reason, the words of a Chicago pastor continue to apply to me: My name is Robert Bossie, and I am a recovering racist. I guess the old saying bears truth day after day: if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.