The beginning of January means three things: NFL playoffs, the sobering realization that the holidays are over, and a series of soon-to-be-disavowed New Year's resolutions. But, this year, I'd like to offer a resolution for white people in Madison that might actually have some lasting impact: get called a racist.
In Reverend Alex Gee's excellent essay in the Cap Times a couple weeks back, he recounts a white friend telling him "many of their white peers feel that short of being murdered, nothing is worse than being called a racist."
First of all, if you are white, you are probably at least a little bit racist. Trust me. Go find a non-white friend, ask them if there are times when you said something racist. They'll probably have a thing or two ready. If you don't have any non-white friends -- well, I think you've just answered that "Am I a racist?" question.
More importantly, the only way you can really avoid getting called a racist is to avoid situations where you may accidentally look like a racist. That means avoiding conversations where you may be uncomfortable, staying away from situations that challenge your worldview, and staying in a nice warm bubble of mostly white people.
Once upon a time, I taught in Madison schools. As a student teacher, my students would call me a racist on a weekly basis. Usually, it would be for silly reasons, such as why the U.S. history curriculum focused on Reconstruction instead of Tupac and Biggie. But, sometimes, the accusation would be more serious. Certain students would ask why they were getting punished more frequently and severely than others.
Without eighth graders calling me a racist, I'd have had less opportunities to look at myself and realize that, in some circumstances, I probably was being racist. Today, I am less of a racist for being called a racist.
Last spring, I was doing some community work in Milwaukee with an awesome diverse coalition of people of different races and nationalities. I was the only white dude in attendance. When it was my turn to speak, I fell back on my stand-up comedy instincts and tried to make a joke to undercut any tension.
"Finally, a white male is here to tell you what to do."
The people for whom English was their first language laughed, some quite loudly. The folks who weren't native English speakers didn't get the notes of sarcasm. They were silent. One lady originally from Honduras was horrified. She thought I had said something horrible, and she was also horrified that the black people were openly mocking me by laughing at me. Another participant turned to her and explained that I wasn't being serious.
The now relieved woman said to me with a smile, "Oh, you aren't racist. You just aren't very funny."
I think I'd rather be called a racist.