It is hard for a white guy to fully understand racial discrimination, unless you have lived in a predominantly black country with a history of discriminating against whites. Thus I begin an article confessing it is a subject I do not fully understand. I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. I am pretty sure the experience of being black is unlike the experience of being white—there is a difference.
I do understand some things about living in a society where you are different from the majority. I speak of the fact that I am physically handicapped and spend my days in a wheelchair. As such, I am thrust into a world that is really not positioned for people like me.
The good news is that the world is changing for the good for people with disabilities. When I was a kid I was not able to utilize the bathroom at school because the doors were too narrow. I simply trained my bladder to hold on until I got home. I got so good at it my father would poke fun at me if he saw me going to the bathroom more than once a day.
I remember when they first started designating parking spaces for handicapped people. I was working at a police department and the space they chose happened to be where the Patrol Lieutenant liked to park his squad car. The first night I was in his space he came storming up to me shouting and asking why I had parked in his space. I reminded him that now it was a handicapped space. He replied that it was intended to be a loading zone.
Not being sure how to respond, I asked, “What does that mean? Am I supposed to throw my crutches out the door and then go park somewhere else?”
He called me a few names surrounded by a few cuss words as he walked away. It hasn’t always been easy, but the world is getting friendlier.
You are thinking that you would never discriminate against a handicapped person. You are glad that we now have reserved parking spaces, accessible bathrooms, wheelchair ramps, and other accommodations. You feel good that your local school district provides special classes for every student living in the district. If I am coming up behind you entering a restaurant you will probably hold the door and make it easier for me to enter the building.
You would never discriminate against a person like me and if you were ever asked you would confidently say that handicapped people have no reason to feel like they don’t belong in your world.
The reality is that you probably do discriminate. It is likely that I cannot visit you at your house (especially if you don’t live in Texas where most houses don’t have basements). You probably don’t consider one six-inch step at the front door threshold a problem, but it is. Once I get inside it is possible that you have so much furniture that I can barely move and must park in one spot that you create by moving some furniture. It is extremely unlikely that I can get in your bathroom, even if I could get to the door.
You don’t intentionally discriminate against people like me. But, to be honest, unintentional discrimination is just as difficult to handle. I only know of a small handful of people who give any thought to accessibility when moving into a house and those people have all lived with me most of their lives. It is not even on the radar of most people.
My life could be much easier if we made some major changes in the way we do things. However, major changes will probably never happen because there are not enough people who think it is a problem. After all, they would never discriminate against someone like me.
I think this is kind of what happens when it comes to racism. Most of us are confident we would never discriminate against a person of another race. That is true up to a point. We would never erect any barriers or do anything intentional to make their lives difficult.
When you have a conversation with someone about racism you will probably hear them say, “I have good friends who are black,” or “I work with a bunch of Mexican guys every day.” They are not lying and I’m sure they probably treat them as equals.
However, you can treat someone as an equal and still be oblivious to the obstacles they face. I seldom think that when people are speaking to me in my wheelchair they think they are better than me—it’s just that they are unaware of my needs. They think that since I have preferred parking, a wheelchair ramp, and an accessible bathroom that all is right with my world—we are on equal footing.
In the same way we think that even though someone is black they can attend the same school, go to the same church, eat in the same restaurants, wear the same clothes, and vote in the same elections as we do—all is right in their world. However, it is not that black and white (pardon the pun).
When someone says they do not see racism in a particular situation, if they are white I don’t give their opinion much credence. It is very difficult for white people to see racism against black people, just like it is very difficult for able-bodied people to see discrimination against disabled people.
Consider for a moment the situation occurring in Ferguson, Missouri. Many black people see it as a racial problem and many whites don’t see race as an issue at all. I tend to side with those who see this as a racial issue because they have more experience with what it means to be discriminated against by the police. If you have never been pulled over by a policeman simply for being black or for being in the wrong part of town then you have no idea what it is like. I don’t either, but I tend to believe those who have.
If you want to know about poverty don’t ask a wealthy person, talk to a poor person. If you want to know what it is like to be from England don’t ask a tourist, talk to an Englishman. If you want to know what it feels like to be addicted to drugs don’t ask a doctor, talk to an addict. If you want to know what racism looks like don’t ask a person from the major race, talk to a black person.
Listen carefully. I’m not saying we have a nation filled with racial haters and bigots. What I am trying to say is that all of us need to pay a little more attention, listen more intently, and strive to be more sensitive to those around us who are telling us their world has problems that we might be able to fix.