Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Human Relations: Encounter with a racist

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I've never really liked racists. Today, I see a little value in them after all.
Last week, Shay Stewart-Bouley wrote a column called "Let Them Talk," which began, "I have often joked as a Black woman that I kind of like white racists. Well, perhaps it's more that I appreciate white people who are open and honest about racist views they harbor. I don't want to hang out with them, but I want to know about them. When someone is openly racist and drops racist epithets, it saves me the time of wondering what is really on their mind when they deal with me."
When I first read that, it made some sense to me — as a sort of "truth in advertising" concept. I got a chance to explore that idea further this afternoon, when an extremely upset woman called the office, starting right out of the gate by complaining about that latest column.
In a breathless, near-hysterics tirade, this woman — who refused to give her name, so I'll call her Blanche — claimed to have deep roots in Maine and to have never seen "those people" unless she "went out of state." She would not say the words "black" or "African American" for nearly the entire call — saying only vague terms like "they" or "them." I kept pressing her on whom she was referring to with those vague terms, even going so far as to ask if she meant black people or African Americans (or Asian Americans or Hispanic Americans, I wondered). Blanche assured me I "wouldn't like it" if she said who she meant. (At one point she did spell out "b-l-a-c-k," though.)
She spouted several old canards used by racists, including complaining that "those people" have access to housing, health care, and food, when so many "real Americans" are poor, hungry, and homeless. She complained that "they keep having them" — exactly the sort of vagueness that characterized her sustained outburst. A clarifying question from me got the answer "pickaninnies." (If you're lucky enough not to know that word, it's an offensively derogatory term for African American children.)
I clarified a couple of times with Blanche that she was calling to complain about a column discussing the existence of overt, unapologetic racism. And then I told her I believed she was in fact living confirmation of this very point.
In fact, I called her a racist several times during the conversation, and not once did she dispute my assertion. Rather, much as the column that inspired the outburst suggested, it prompted further disclosure of Blanche's prejudices, as she inveighed against treating "those people" like the human beings they are: "It's not right — you know it isn't right."
Blanche asked why Stewart-Bouley "had to write about" racism and discrimination; I explained that the column is about diversity, and she's free to write on any angle of that broad topic, whether positive or negative.
She also attempted to attack Stewart-Bouley personally, saying she "isn't from here. We don't have those people here. We never had those people here." She asked why Stewart-Bouley would live here and choose to raise a child here, as if Blanche's prejudice was not only justifiable but also should somehow act as a black-person repellent.
When Blanche complained about things not being "right," she has a point, though what's wrong is not on Stewart-Bouley's end of things. After spending 18 minutes getting increasingly apoplectic, the rant came to a head with this line: "You tell that woman to get her black ass back to Africa." I told her: "Get your white ass the fuck out of the Dark Ages." I'm not sure how much of that she heard, though, because she hung up on me. Perhaps I should have said what Stewart-Bouley might have in a more philosophical moment: "Thanks for being a senseless relic — and an example of how far Maine still must progress before joining this millennium."