I Didn’t Know I Had This One Bad Habit For 20 Years (And I Still Have It)

I wear a face mask in public without fear of being arrested. No one is suspicious of my intentions, and I'd venture to guess it's because of my skin tone.

In 2006, I was walking down Broadway with a friend when two Black men yelled at me “The white girl is scared we’re gonna steal her bag!”

I stopped and looked at them. I hadn’t even noticed them there (or had I?). And then I realized my hand was wrapped around my purse strap. “I was just adjusting it on my shoulder,” I said, and looked to my friend in agreement.

We continued on our way, annoyed that our afternoon walk had been interrupted.

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In the years following, I enrolled in multiple international human rights law classes with Peter Lucas. He framed human rights laws and issues around books, films, and art, and left quite an impression on many of us.

Among the plethora of knowledge nuggets he dropped, there’s one that I constantly reference: all of our prejudices – sexism, racism, classism – have to be unlearned. And unlearning takes a lifetime.

As someone who chose to study human rights law, it certainly made sense in my head. We were reading and studying multiple examples of how each one was constructed and deconstructed throughout modern history.

But it wasn’t until years after I graduated and moved away from New York that it occurred to me: I still have to unlearn my racist behavior. I can’t tell you exactly when I realized it, but it wasn’t in 2006, and it wasn’t during Peter’s classes.

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As far as I can remember, no one told me “You need to grab your purse when a Black man is near you.” I don’t recall learning it in school or self-defense classes.

But I’m sure it was there in movies and TV shows. I probably saw women around me do it, even if I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening. I know I saw homeless people, and there’s a good chance most of them were Black men – and I bet there are all kinds of unconscious associations and assumptions I made from there.

Even growing up in the oh-so open-minded San Francisco Bay Area, where my formal and informal educations just skimmed the surface of the civil rights movement, I learned racist behaviors. And I held onto them.

I still do.

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Recently, I attended an outdoor fitness class for women. The 8 of us left our bags on the bench next to the instructor while we exercised.

I noticed a white man jog by. I felt at ease, but then I thought to myself “What if he had been Black? Would I feel as relaxed?”

While my head and my heart say yes, my gut says probably not.

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Almost 15 years later and I still think about those men on Broadway. And that impulse to grab or touch my bag when I see a Black man is still there, however small.

I know that my behavior is wrong.

But I can tell you this with the upmost confidence: bringing these behaviors to the forefront of my mind feels like a first step. Because once I was aware that I touched my bag every time I saw an unfamiliar Black man, I started recognizing other behaviors in myself and others.

And these types of behaviors and biases drive people to call the cops when it’s not necessary. It’s these unconscious prejudices that can dictate how we treat people who don’t look like us. All of these things we know in our heads to be wrong are still waiting in our hearts and our guts to be unpacked.

Unlearning racism is a long process. But choosing to start is easy.


Some books, resources, and ways to help that I recommend:

For fantasy fiction fans: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

For entrepreneurs: It’s About Damn Time by Arlan Hamilton (she also has a great podcast called Your First Million)

For chefs: The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin

For anyone who works with other people: The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table by Minda Harts

For anyone with a wallet:

  • Subscribe to your local newspaper: They are the front line in fighting corruption
  • Donate to your local food bank: Because people need to eat all-year round, not just at the holidays
  • Donate to the ACLU: The American Civil Liberties Union has a lot of experience dismantling white supremacy and racism
  • Donate to your bail fund of choice (or all of them): While bail funds received incredible attention during the 2020 Breonna Taylor and George Floyd protests, those funds still need help all year round (learn more about why cash bail may not be as effective as you think)

For anyone looking for data: Subscribe to Sherrell Dorsey’s The Plug, which reports on Black innovation and tech

If you have more suggestions, please leave them in the comments below for others to find, and I’ll also add them in the post

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