The Casual Racism of Strangers

I stopped into my neighborhood pub last evening for a pint while my laundry went through its wash cycle across the avenue. The place is owned by friendly Brits with a penchant for soccer and rugby—a sport that seems to be about barrel-chested men getting filthy and giving each other cauliflower ears while engaging in homoerotic scrums.

I sat next to a chatty guy named Gary with the forearms of a lifelong manual worker. Turns out he’s working at Ground Zero—scheduled to open as Freedom Towers in 2037— as an iron worker, his father worked on the World Trade Center and his grampa on the Verrazano Bridge, an impressive structure that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn where we both live.

This is a pub in south Park Slope, which is dominated by Latinos, immigrants of every hue and nationality and a seemingly endless number of lesbians and gay men with their storied parade of strollers and gaybies.

Gary struck me as a pretty easy-going guy who was enthusiastic about the fact that hundreds of the 2,000 or so workers at Freedom Towers are women who’ve earned their chops and he even offered me a little history lesson on the 1979 origins of women in his local. I was starting to warm to the guy when he did that thing that strangers sometimes do which always depresses the hell out of me. He lowered his voice and said, the Black guys, you know the ones from the Caribbean, they’re the lazy ones. And then he affected a Jamaican accent to make his point about their slogan—”a thousand a week for hide and seek.”

Two things ran through my brain at that moment. One, why do white strangers assume that the white person they’re talking to agrees with this kind of sentiment? Two, how do I challenge this guy, who is not some crazed right-winger, in such a way that he shifts his way of looking at this and not just gets angry and walks away?

On the first point, I can only assume in his case that he’s encountered enough white people who do hold racial stereotypes like him that he hasn’t been called on it in the past. On the second, I just stopped him and asked him a question. Gary, what do you suppose that attitude has to do with those men being Black? And haven’t you ever met a white guy who was less than enthusiastic about working? That uh-oh look washed across his face.

We spent the next few minutes talking about all this and the African American guy who sat down on the other side of me got involved in the conversation too. It was remarkably unheated and friendly and had more of the feel of a Socratic dialog than an anti-racist lecture. Though I have no illusions that Gary will never again think or say racially biased things, I can’t help feeling that maybe he’ll roll this one around in his head for a while and think twice the next time.

I’m absolutely certain my instinct up until a couple of years ago would have been to go on a frontal attack with Gary, but somewhere along the way it struck me that I wasn’t getting through or changing minds that way, which is the point after all.

After more than 20 years of being a socialist and talking to people about politics I still find myself figuring out how to effectively tackle the casual racism of strangers. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all method, but given the racist crap flying around the airwaves, the classrooms and, as always, the bars of this country I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot more practice in months and years to come.

My next public talk is on Fighting the Right, Friday, TONIGHT, Oct. 15th, Rochester Inst. of Technology, Library’s “Idea Factory,” 7PM. I’ll also be speaking the following day, Saturday, Oct. 16, on Can the Working Class Unite? at 3PM, details are here.

12 responses to “The Casual Racism of Strangers

  1. In instances like the one you described, I think racism is sometimes an unfortunate way of building closeness and camaraderie via exclusion. The goal is not a bad one, but the method is the problem.

    So I would focus, not on tearing them down, but on building that closeness through other means, which lets them feel that there are other ways to bond with someone than by dragging down others. Once you’ve established that bond, they’re also far more likely to take away the anti-racism message.

  2. One, why do white strangers assume that the white person they’re talking to agrees with this kind of sentiment?

    Thank you! Assumed white solidarity is so ridiculously annoying, and it seems to be more prevalent among people who live in non-white majority areas.

  3. Lately I too have been finding, in practice, that my habit of morally attacking anyone who repeats a stereotype to be absolutely useless and even counterproductive — not simply because it doesn’t change minds, but because I’m surrounded by it. My coworkers and neighbors have already been pre-programmed by FOX to be immediately dismissive of anyone who runs around yelling “racist” without doing a lot of explaining — and at the same time, they’re not bad people, and certainly not rich people either, so I want to communicate with them.

    Sometimes I’m really concerned that if all we do is call people racist, they will begin to internalize it and decide, hey, they ARE racists! It can be difficult to succinctly explain, in a brief conversation, the class basis for needing interracial cooperation…but I’ve been getting better at it, and I think we’ve all got to get better at it, or else we’re going to lose a lot of ground. We’ve got to move from telling people that they’re wrong for being racist, toward telling people that racism actually hurts them, even if they’re white. Unless we’re going from people’s intrinsic motivations, we’re just another annoying voice obligating them to do something they don’t want to do in a world where they already have to put up with that all day.

    I think we’ve inherited the moralistic anti-racism of the 1960s, and we’ve got to get back to the class anti-racism of the 1930s. Ironically even the class-oriented Left still seems to be working off of inherited habits foreign to its own logic.

    Sorry if that was long, this kind of thing has really been burning in my mind, actually.

  4. My first spontaneous demonstration against racism was at a dance at the Union Memorial School of Nursing in Baltimore in 1952. At the time and really throughout HS we thought we were at the threshold of a new era. We had the marches, and the riots, and Martin Luther King Jr, and any number of laws. But the cultural racism remains, seemingly undiminished.
    Here we have a note on a prominent MS jurist: ‘In 1974, when a 21 year-old black man was gunned down by police in Byhalia, Mississippi, local activists with the Marshall County United League criticized law enforcement’s response to the killing. Members of the league distributed pamphlets criticizing [Talmadge] Littlejohn, who was then the District Attorney. They called a hearing into the shooting a “farce,” and accused Littlejohn of “acting as defense attorney for the officers rather than as prosecutor,” according to a 1978 ruling by a federal appeals court.’
    Link to the story is:

  5. I appreciate this anecdote so much. I have also been struggling forever–and I’m a professor who runs discussion driven classes!–to figure out how to dialogue rather than simply confront people whose racism, misogyny etc. is the air they breath, second-nature. I agree that racism, homophobia, etc are attempts at some kind of bonding–but that is exactly the problem–the very structure of these modes of dehumanization of “the other”. And you seemed to have found a way to disrupt that bonding ritual, while creating a different kind of bond, at least in that moment.

  6. I can imagine, but never truly know, what you have been through in your life. When my family moved from Kansas to Texas in 1957 (still during segregation, obviously) I was 10 year old and was met with a sort of “ricochet racism and discrimination” and was called names like “nig*er lover” and others that always led to fist fights and more name calling until the perpetrators of the racism got it into their heads that I wasn’t going to change my mind that blacks were just folks like us. I really don’t think racists change; I think we have to wait for them to die out and hope in the meantime they don’t infect others, like their own children or their students or parishioners, with their ill-founded hatred and misguided perception of what being human is. It is a sad testimony to our condition. Now, what I frequently do when I meet people that are overtly racist or I suspect of being bigots is tell them about, or have them look up the Human Geongraphic Project on National Geographic on the web or cable TV. As part of this project, DNA and RNA swabs are taken from random strangers in NYC and are traced back to “scientific Eve” and “scientific Adam” to points in Africa. The routes of ancestral migration can then be traces forwards in time to the present. By participating in the program, one can trace your own DNA and ancestoral migration pattern to show the route of your relatives going all the way back in time to the point in Africa where we all originated, then forward to where you are standing at that moment. Fascinating! One can participate in the Project and order a DNA swab kit for $99 and send it in to NG-Human Genographic Project. Wish I had the money to do this for every grade and every school in the nation as it shows, without a doubt, WE ARE ALL AFRICAN HERITAGE — our ancestors just took different migration routes throughout prehistory to now. Check it out:

  7. Great article. So refreshing.

  8. While I agree that the most constructive move isn’t always “a full frontal attack”, sometimes it is…literally. Bashing a racist in the face often leads to a personal epiphany for the racist…I’ve seen it first hand too many times to discount the violent approach. I think true anti-racism has to be open to the full spectrum of possible responses and keep them all in the toolkit. Loved the post.

  9. It’s sort of pathetic how you claim to be all “anti-racist”, and yet continually capitalize “Black” in your posts, while leaving “white” uncapitalized. IE “men being Black? And haven’t you ever met a white guy” Petty much?

    • Perhaps you missed out on the newspapers, pamphlets, placards and texts of the civil rights and Black Power movements where “Black” is capitalized as a sign of solidarity with the struggles against racism. These struggles shape my consciousness and I adhere to their style in my own nod to the struggles against racism. In my experience, the only folks who capitalize “White” are supremacists whose goals and style guides I do not follow.

  10. great read. this part is pretty insightful “One, why do white strangers assume that the white person they’re talking to agrees with this kind of sentiment?”

  11. Regardless of what “struggles” “shape your consciousness”, can you really not see how hypocritical it looks to privilege one race, by capitalizing their name, while denying that to other races? Furthermore, as much as it may shock you, some people other than whites believe in the supremacy of their own races. There are black supremacists as well. Read a little about the Nation of Islam, and its’ founder, Elijah Muhammed, for further information on that.

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