On casual racism

I’ve said that the library is the community commons. And as such, it reflects the community, both in its good and its ill.

I helped a young lady whom I knew vaguely by sight. I didn’t know her name, but she always seemed pleasant enough. She was walking with the aid of a cane as she had a cast on her foot.

We chitchatted, and as I finished getting her the book she was looking for, I asked how she’d hurt herself.

A car had run into her at an intersection. She had suffered several injuries. This had occurred months before, and she had gone through many surgeries.

Me being me, I said, “Well, I hope you sued the bastard”.

She told me that “the bastard” had fled the scene. His car had been found, abandoned, and it had been unregistered.

She said, “Which makes me think it had to be an illegal. My friend said that was racist, but it’s just the truth. Who else would do that and be able to live with themselves?”

I’d like to say that I flew into a righteous rage, stood up, pointed a finger at her, and told her not to darken the library’s threshold ever again.

Of course, I didn’t. She merely vocalized what I’m sure a sizable minority of my patrons think. We help the just and the unjust. It’s what we do.

But the way she felt casually comfortable to drop a canard like that—”it had to be an illegal”—is unsettling.

We’re used to seeing the most racist excrement on Twitter and comment threads. The anonymity of the Internet releases people’s racist id. They say things they’d never have the balls to say in real life.

Except, they are saying it in real life, to a near stranger, without batting an eyelash.

I don’t “look” Latino, or at least the stereotypical Latino. I’m not dark. I could be just another quotidian white guy. So I get told things because of my skin color.

In another incident, a “lovely” woman, whom I was always happy to help, went on the most amazing tirade about “those illegals” getting driver’s licenses in California. She had requested a book by a Latino author, then offered, unprompted, “But I’m rather tired of ‘Latinos’.” I told her, “Well, you must be tired of me, because I’m Latino.”

“You’re Latino? Well, I don’t know if you’re one of the illegals.”

Fortunately, my boss saved me at that moment. I was furious for several days. I finally experienced just a scintilla of what African Americans go through on an almost daily basis. All because I “pass” for a dominant culture white man. Had I been darker, had I “looked Latino”, she may have kept her opinion to herself. And I wouldn’t have known that this cultured, gracious woman was a racist.

Things which were kept hidden in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Latino movements are now profligately expressed. There is a rancid nativism, a scurrilous chauvinism rampant in the country. Much of it is due to the election and re-election of the first African American president. (Voted for him twice.) But it’s obvious much of it is due to the ever-quickly changing demographics of this country. My city and county of Los Angeles are already majority-minority. “Their” country is slipping away, and goddamnit, they won’t let it slip without a fight.

But they’ve already lost. Because I’m writing this essay. Because the media is wondering if the Oscars suffered a precipitous decline in viewership because of @ReignOfApril‘s #OscarSoWhite. Because this very medium which I and countless others use circumvents the gatekeepers, gets information out when it would otherwise be ignored.

The casual racism is alarming, and must be called out at every instance. But it is also the flappy hand waving and stompy feet of a dominant culture which is fading away. The question is whether it will wither of its own accord, or mount one final Battle of the Bulge. A decorous decline, followed by a full blooming of the new, is to be preferred.

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