As a white person, race can sometimes be an awkward thing to talk about. So the recent incident at Elmwood Cafe in Berkeley involving comedian W. Kamau Bell has left me with questions about racism in my backyard and the role that I play in combating it.
Bell was greeting his wife and her friends outside of Elmwood Cafe. Bell happened to be black, and his wife and her friends all happened to be white.
According to Bell, an employee knocked on the window from inside, telling him to “scram” and giving “certainly the kind of direction you should only give to a dog.” After being confronted by Bell, the employee apologized, but Bell still left the cafe that day feeling like the victim of racism.
This is Berserkeley we’re talking about. The same Berserkeley that is home to the most progressive of progressive. This was not the community I had once been inspired by, which lived and breathed off of advocacy for tolerance and cultural awareness.
How is this happening, here of all places? I want to scream to the world how important it is that we find a way to change it. But, I am a white girl. Privileged in discussions of race, what role do I have in the fight for equality? A voice in my head tells me, “You don’t understand the problems of racial prejudice. Just stay out of the way.”
What makes things even more confusing is that modern-day racism isn’t usually out in the open. Nineteenth-century Jim Crow racism has been replaced with something less conspicuous: microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle, sometimes unintentional exchanges that implicitly deride people of color.
Microaggressions are, by their very nature, subtle, meaning that unless they’re directed toward you, they can often slip by. As a white person, I know that I regularly fail to notice them. So then how can I — someone who prides herself on being socially conscious — fight an enemy I can barely see?
Peggy McIntosh, an American feminist and anti-racism activist, may have a solution. She contends that females are regularly subjected to inequalities in a male-privileged world in a similar fashion to those who are racially discriminated against. I may not experience racial microaggressions, but I am very familiar with gendered microaggression.
As a woman, I understand what it means to be at a disadvantage. In fact, I would posit that everybody, in one form or another, faces some version of inequality. This shared sense of inequality can help us empathize with one another, laying the foundation for a constructive dialogue about what it means to be equal.
That is not to say that all forms of inequality are created equal. But recognizing the pains associated with any type of inequality can help us access that pain of others.
As a white female, I might not face racial prejudice. But, my experience with sexism allows me to meaningfully empathize with those who face microaggressions. Maybe that is my first step in contributing to the fight for equality. We each have equal opportunities to develop empathy for those around us — my responsibility is to recognize the power in capturing these.
Bell aptly quoted children’s singer Raffi in his blog response to the Elmwood incident: “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”
Chandler Nolan is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]