As a white woman who grew up in mostly white Midwestern neighborhoods, went to schools attended largely by white people and works in a field dominated by white men, I haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting on racism. Racism can be defined as a racial prejudice that is backed by a system of legal authority and institutional control. As part of the dominant culture, I have rarely questioned my right to travel anywhere, my right to shop anywhere or even my right to have and speak my opinion without fear for my personal safety.
As someone who likes to think she is fair-minded, I have been outraged by the police shootings of unarmed black men and boys across this country, and I’ve supported the efforts to bring racial equity to everything from the criminal justice system to educational opportunity. Yet as a white person, I am able to be outraged and supportive at a theoretical level without really taking ownership of how I continue to benefit from the dominant racial narrative of our culture; that white is better, white is good, white is right, white is normal and people who are not white are not as good, not as right and not as normal as us. It’s a sneaky narrative, flying low under the radar of self-examination.
Two experiences this summer have challenged my complacency. One was a video I watched of a social experiment that was filmed in an upscale clothing store. The experiment involved setting up a situation where racial discrimination occurred in the store and witnessing how bystanders responded.
A black actress played a customer entering the store and browsing through the merchandise. A white actress played the store clerk who confronts the black actress and says things like “We probably don’t have anything in your price range, maybe you should try another store” and “I’m sure there is nothing here for you.” The harassment continues when the customer refuses to leave or be intimidated. The experiment is to see if anyone will speak up on behalf of the customer.
In this video, most of the bystanders turned away and didn’t say anything. It’s an uncomfortable and awkward moment. Even if you don’t agree with what is being said, if it’s not you being harassed and it’s not your store, it’s just easier to pretend you didn’t notice, to not get involved, to mind your own business.
In the experiment, a very few people intervened and said things like, “What is the problem here? I’m dressed worse than she is.” And if the harassment continued, a few people actually took the black customer’s arm and said, “Let’s get out of here, I don’t think this is a shop for us, we’ll take our business elsewhere.”
I’d like to think I would be one of those people who stood up for the unjustly treated when given the opportunity. I’d like to think I was someone who used my privilege as a white person to challenge the racist status quo. But this video made me uncomfortable, because I wasn’t sure I would be that person.
Then it happened to me — and I blew it.
When my mother-in-law was in town last month, I made an appointment for us at my local nail salon. Like many nail salons in the area, they book appointments but also advertise a walk-ins-welcome policy. Normally I just walk in when I have time and they always make room for me. If they are very busy, they will let me know it will be a wait, but they have never turned me away. On that Saturday morning, shortly after they opened, the salon was what I would call medium-busy. All of the technicians were with customers, but there was no one waiting, and the person staffing the desk wasn’t yet with a client.
My mother-in-law and I were at the salon for about an hour. During that time, four more customers came into the store. Two were accommodated, and two were told there were no openings and there wouldn’t be any openings until later that afternoon. Each time the person at the desk checked the schedule book and was very polite and so sorry.
I really didn’t think anything of it, being so involved in my own service and conversation, but as I was paying my bill and leaving the store, it kind of jumped out at me that the two customers who were turned away were black women. I was suddenly appalled. Had I just witnessed the very racial discrimination that was portrayed in the experiment and not even noticed? Of course, several explanations and justifications came immediately to mind. All the nail technicians were busy. Maybe they had a bunch of appointments on the calendar I didn’t know about. Maybe the other two white women who came in the store had made appointments in advance.
By this time I had paid my bill and was out in the car, feeling very confused. I ran the entire sequence of events past my mother-in-law. Upon reflection, that was her observation too. Four women came in with requests for service, and the two black women were turned away.
So here I’d had my chance to stand in solidarity with a woman of color, and I’d barely noticed that something seemed off. I didn’t confront the store employee, I didn’t challenge the racial discrimination and I left feeling inadequate and thinking I can’t ever go back to that nail salon. In this way I avoid confrontation and feeling uncomfortable.
What would have been a better way to handle this situation? When it comes to racial issues, I have a lot to learn. I’m working on it.