Yup, That’s Racist

We’re eight miles from the Atlantic shoreline on US-192 eastbound through Melbourne from St. Cloud, a half hour into our ride with *Glenda. I’m taking the last sips of a Black Cherry IBC that she gave me; it’s her favorite. Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual is playing at low volume. The mid-afternoon sun is shining. This should be our last ride without ocean waves in sight before we finally re-enter Latin America and she’s been wonderfully kind to us in a motherly and friendly way. As the light changes to red and we ease to a safe stop, I’m thinking, “it doesn’t get much better than this.”

Out my window, the left window, the driver’s side window, a big purple Cadillac idles with two men in the front seat. A mural of their resting-in-peace friend is painted on the trunk which is lifted off the ground at an unnatural height above shiny waxed chrome rims. The woofers are thumping hip hop. If this were a movie scene, the beat would’ve stopped abruptly with the sound of a record scratching.

“Fuckin’ niggers, “ Glenda says with casual, lighthearted disdain.

Uh-oh.

We’ve been here before. Too many people pick us up and then, somewhere along the road, reveal their discriminatory underbelly. Sometimes they’re saying something vaguely anti-Semitic. In Canada the racism typically targeted Asian and First Nations people. Wherever ya go, the minority group (usually immigrants or descendants of a marginalized native population) varies, but the general problem is the same.

Our usual approach to the situation is a combination of asking Socratic questions and expressing our anti-racist sentiments while trying to understand what makes people continue to think and act this way.

“What?”

“Look at ‘em,” she continued. “It’s disgusting.”

What was disgusting remained unclear to us. They preferred a different aesthetic, sure. But their car certainly guzzled no more gas than Glenda’s truck. We tried our usual incredulous approach. Asking what she meant, why she would say that, why she thought those were appropriate words and thoughts. She explained that there’s a difference between black people and niggers. That white people can be niggers too. Some halfhearted apologies were mixed in, citing her age and how she grew up and how she isn’t really racist. I’m sure she has a black friend. Or at least there’s a dark-skinned cashier with whom she exchanges routine pleasantries at the grocery store where she buys her IBC.

We’ve all heard the Chris Rock spiel and we’ve all witnessed its painful regurgitation by white non-comedians as if all of history and culture can be altered and such a term rendered a-ok because a black celebrity said that thing that one time.

We were nearing our destination drop-off point and our question-asking wasn’t going as productively as we’d hoped. She had, with some amount of consistency, stuck to the explanation that people can be niggers regardless of their skin color and that being a nigger was about how you presented yourself… you know, like a black does. And, oh boy, she loved saying that word.

“Okay then,” Adam finally replied with resignation. I don’t think any of us knew exactly where to go from there. Her argument wasn’t sound, but it was unclear how we could say anything that would truly stick. And hey, maybe her explanation was sufficient.

Except that it’s not.

Why? Because when she pulls up to a light with white people blaring Metallica in their Jeep, I doubt she says to herself, “those fuckin’ niggers.” And even if she does, it wouldn’t mean the same thing.

Why not? Because white people haven’t been referred to as niggers for centuries while being enslaved and then systematically oppressed – to this day – by a visibly different group of people with lighter skin who continue to benefit from, maintain, and promote white supremacy.

Sorry, but calling people niggers is racist. The word is racist. Using it as a joke is racist. When you say something you think might be racist and then follow it up with, “but I’m not racist,” you are, in fact, being racist.

When you start a statement with, “I’m not racist but…” you should probably cut yourself off because the second half of your statement will contradict its introduction.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Am I racist?” then the answer is almost certainly yes.

We’re all products of a racist culture. We are all, to some degree, racist, try as we might to not be. It’s ingrained in our media, our economic and social structures, our geography – all aspects of our daily lives. We must work actively to fight the culturally rooted, institutionally promoted racism that leads to the aforementioned scenario – one which is, unfortunately, quite common for us on this trip. And in order to work actively to fight racism – something we must do personally, socially, and politically – we must understand how it is part of our lives.

It makes me sad that hitchhiking around North America is so much easier for me simply because I’m white. It’s no accident that a majority of the backpacking adventurers we meet and read about are white. White folks like us can do unusual things and be praised more and bothered less than our black and brown comrades. People don’t see three white people and reflexively react suspiciously the way they do with black people. Cops don’t arrest white people as often. And they don’t assault white people as often. White people are less likely to go to prison. White people are not profiled by border patrol and airport security as often. White people get paid more and harassed less.

Calling black people niggers is not okay. It’s not okay in public and it’s not okay in private. Please wake up and grow up. It’s 2014. You are not Chris Rock. You are racist.

– Jesse
from Indialantic, FL

IMG_8721

I get rides easier because I’m white. No, I don’t agree with your racist statements.

*I changed her name for this story.

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8 thoughts on “Yup, That’s Racist

  1. You guys amaze me. Thanks for your posts.

    Susan Lingwall

    (We gave you a ride to Thunder Bay, Ontario last fall.)

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Hi Susan! We remember you and Keith of course! Thank you for staying in touch and continuing to read some of our writings! And thank you for the kind words! How are things up North? Y’all back in Iowa or traipsing around the Lakes again?
      – Jesse

  2. instead of gaining knowledge on your journey, and exploring the person within. Which travel is all about. It seems that you have squandered your Northern White Privilege without actually gaining anything. It is true that racism still exist in this world, and in the US. However, your blog as informative as it, neglects to consider American History. We are a young Nation that is moving forward quickly. As we move forward, we know a few “Glenda’s” remain. Allow us to move forward from our past judgement’s without yours. I challenge you to journey outside the safety of North America, and to experience the world with an open mind. Do not place judgment. Experience people, places, and grow personally. Allow your mind to be the sounding board where you pass judgment on cultures, and people you are not accustomed too. Remember always that you are a visitor. A guest. Every kind word you say about a person you met in a foreign country is moot once you post something negative about someone in that country. Stop focusing on the negative and spread a positive word about the positive people you meet. You choose who you write about. Let the pebbles you cast in the pond be for positive. So that positive touches your loved ones back home, and they spread it through the World. Let your message truly be of equality, and not focus on one person’s intolerance. .

    • Hi Rob. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m perplexed by much of what you wrote though.

      First, regarding the latter half, I think we do generally remain focused on the positives. Take this entry for example: https://sowmanyreasons.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/everyday-life-is-amazing/ And I do agree with you that keeping a positive focus is important and we aim to do that in our daily behavior and, for the most part, with this blog.

      However, I do think it’s also important that we address the problems we see in a direct and honest way. Racism is not something our society has moved past yet. It’s not just a problem with the “Glendas” holding onto ideas of yesteryear, it’s something that exhibits itself in complex and deeply troubling ways that aren’t always as easy to identify as the “n-word.”

      My intentions with this article were mostly two-fold: to touch upon those complexities some while acknowledging the even more blatant racism which presents itself to us regularly. And it’s not just something we’ve seen in the Southeastern US. Having been to all 48 of the contiguous states, across all the Canadian border provinces (near and far from the border), and into Mexico, we’ve born witness to discrimination in many forms in all places. And we’ve also, in our own lives, had to do a lot of learning and reconciling our own upbringings which was at times uncomfortable because we too are products of a racist culture that ingrained in us some pretty icky habits.

      The problem of racism, and the broader problems of discrimination, are not over and I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favors by ignoring them. Ignoring the problems don’t make them go away, it simply allows them to fester while those of us with the privilege to not have to deal with the consequences can remain disconnected.

      Regarding some of the other bits, I’m curious what you mean by “squandering” my “northern white privilege”? Some privileges are the kinds which we’d do well to extend to all people (like, say, the privilege of not worrying about having enough healthy food to eat). But other privileges, like those based on race, are privileges we’d do well to eliminate altogether. As such, I’m not sure how “squandering” such a privilege is a bad thing.

      As far as broadening our geographic and mental horizons, we do aim to do both consistently with this trip. Having covered tens of thousands of miles and spoken with thousands of people across the US, Canada and Mexico, we are now, in fact, trying to get to South America (by boat).

      I hope that we are indeed able to continue to grow and go more places, and I hope that we can continue to share our thoughts with you.

      – Jesse

    • Well hello there. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m not sure what you’re implying by the first part of your post, though. Care to elaborate?

      As far as hitchhiking being dangerous, we’ve actually found it to be quite the opposite. With hundreds of rides all across the US, Canada and Mexico thus far, we’ve yet to be assaulted or approached inappropriately by anyone. There are some strange people, and sometimes people drive dangerously (which is indeed dangerous), and sometimes the roadside isn’t the best locale for trying to hitch, but in general, it’s not all that dangerous. A few precautions are worth taking, including being savvy with who you accept rides from and how, and it also helps that we’re generally in a group (though our experiences solo have been similarly positive). Driving down highways is the most dangerous part, but that goes for anyone in cars.

      – Jesse

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