October 19, 2016
“White people have the luxury of not having to think about race. That is a benefit of being white, of being part of the dominant group…The system works for you, and you don't have to think about it.”
—john a. powell
Last Saturday, I strolled past a yard sale. Browsing a table piled high with Halloween costumes—feather boas, silly hats, and the like—I spotted a Rastafarian hat with black dreadlocks attached.
When you’re white, as I am, you don’t always notice systemic racism. When you do, it can be hard to know what to say. The wig bothered me; race and ethnicity aren’t something for white people to “dress up as.” I moved on, though, both distracted by the errand I was running and unsure of what to do about the wig.
This wasn’t the first time (and I’m afraid it won’t be the last) that inaction seemed easier than awkwardly talking about racism with white strangers. But some hard things are important to do anyway, and my silence haunted me for the next hour, finally sending me back to the yard sale—or, rather, to the post-yard sale activity of bagging up leftovers.
“I know you’re packing up, but I need to buy that dreadlock wig, to take it out of circulation,” I said.
Annoyed, one woman put her hands on her hips. “Why?”
“Because being black is not a costume,” I blurted out. “I’m not criticizing you for having it, I just believe that it perpetuates racism.”
“Well, it’s already packed and I don’t know where it is.”
“Would you please let me find it? I have all afternoon. I promise I’ll re-bag everything.”
Her friend came over. “I know which bag it’s in,” she said, clearly uncomfortable. As we walked to a stack of bags, I felt an intense urge to apologize. “I’m not trying to make you bad and wrong for having the wig.”
“Someone gave it to me as a gift,” she defended herself. “I’ve never worn it.” She thrust the wig at me. I thanked her, introduced myself as her neighbor, and took the wig home, half-victorious and half cringing.
This wasn't the first time that I've done the right thing in a clumsy way. It won't be the last. But it was practice: practice at recognizing racism and owning whiteness...and what we practice, grows stronger.