For nearly three years I’ve been lucky enough to call New Orleans – the most enthralling city I’ve ever been to – home. In those three years, I’ve also taken up a new hobby: not letting White New Orleanians pat themselves on the back too hard while talking about how progressive the city is. I’ve had more than a dozen conversations like this since moving here where a white local (always a male) goes on and on about how “not racist” this city is. To which I point to the segregated schools and the fact that nearly every white person in the city sends their child to private school, while the under-performing public schools are almost entirely populated by students of color, the three top-performing public schools being the only exceptions.
In claiming the city to be racism free, these people are also turning a blind eye to so many other glaring examples of segregation like Mardi Gras, a celebration I do love, though I have to put its racial divides on the back burner to fully enjoy. It features black parades and white parades, black marching bands and white marching bands, and while the entire city might come out to see all the different parades, you can effortlessly observe the racial makeup of the crowds completely change as the floats move through different parts of the city. This is to say nothing of the fact that as the largest port of entry for slaves in the US, there isn’t a single significant marker of this fact to be found. However, this is how it’s always been and a person growing up here might have a hard time seeing past what they have come to view as normal to see what is so painfully obvious to me as an outsider. Furthermore, the praise they heap upon themselves comes in part from comparing the city’s inhabitants to those of nearby rural Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, which would make just about anyone not burning a cross while holding a David Duke sign feel like Martin Luther King Jr. by comparison. (Never mind the fact that most of those rural Southerns will also deny that they’re racist.)
However, New Orleanians aren’t the only ones in denial, as an exhausting conversation with two white, liberal Californians recently reminded me. They, like me, saw many of the surface level remnants of The Big Easy’s not-so-distant segregated past. Despite having the ability to see what some folks here cannot, they also went too far by proclaiming themselves – and the entire progressive state of California – racism free. While holding back a laugh, I responded to this ludicrous claim by saying I had about a dozen black friends from Cali that I could call up right then and there who would disagree. They both shot back that my friends – my black friends – didn’t know what they were talking about.
Given that these guys were liberal, I held out hope that they would be more open to rational conversation than the multiple Trump supporters I’ve talked to who’ve tried to persuade me that “slavery in America really wasn’t that bad.” (Sadly, a true story.) I began by trying to analogize their claims about racism to claims I’ve made about myself involving sexism and misogyny. Knowing my own heart and my good intentions, I lived years of my life believing that I was in no way, shape, or form part of the problem. As I’ve gotten older and better at listening, however, I’ve realized that was not the case. Thanks in no small part to having had a lot of strong, smart and patient women in my life, and having gotten to visit cultures that lay all over the spectrum of gender equality, I slowly realized that issues surrounding this subject were bigger and deeper than I had ever understood them to be and that I had not fully overcome all of them.
Long before I got to the point of realizing I still had things to improve about myself, I knew what I considered to be sexist or misogynistic, and, perhaps not surprisingly, I didn’t feel I exhibited a single one of them. (Cheers to me.) In retrospect, I now see that this is like trying to check if I have a fever by using my own hand. Or better yet, it was like passing a test of my own creation and then grading myself on a curve because I know there are men out there who are worse on the issue than me.
I said something like this to the two guys, and pointed out that their desire to not be racist, like mine to not be sexist, is a step in the right direction. However, I also told them that our culture is like a pool full of subtle and subconscious messaging, institutional and systematic oppression, unchallenged and unquestioned norms, and failures to appreciate the realities of other people’s existences. Claiming that none of that has impacted us just because we’re consciously aware that racism and sexism are bad is like claiming to be completely dry the second we climb out of a pool just because we’re not in the water anymore. Upon concluding my analogy, I said, “I’m proudly feminist, and I’m a better feminist today than I was five years ago, but I’ll be a better feminist five years from now.”
This was all lost on them and my friend, who was nearby listening in, convinced me to end the conversation once one of them started talking about how he was was fixing the Treme, a historical black and currently impoverished sectioned of New Orleans, just by being there and doing his art. And I did, but not before pointing out that he was claiming to know more about racism than me, a black man, which was something I had done several years earlier with a woman about how sensitive to women’s issues I was. Here’s a tip for everyone: If you’re arguing with a member of the group you’re claiming to be an ally of about how progressive you are, you’ve already proven them right for disagreeing with you. However, and I hope it proves to be the case for these guys, that moment of idiocy did a lot to open my eyes about how much growth I still have to do, and I’m pleased to say before that conversation ended, I was able to apologize to her for my defensive reaction to finding out I wasn’t as evolved as I wanted to be.
The reason I say all this is to encourage everyone to drop this need to view ourselves as completely free from racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever other kind of prejudice might be lurking in the cultural pool we’re swimming in. Simply acknowledging these things as wrong doesn’t immunize us from them, and this need to be pure makes us too defensive to listen, and if we’re not listening, then we’re not learning. If we’re not learning, then we’re not growing, and if we’re not growing, then we’re perpetuating the problem. I can also say for myself that it has been like taking a weight off my shoulders to admit I am not perfect on the issue of gender equality. It has made it easier for me to see things from someone else’s point of view and to consider observations a person might make about my own actions and words. It also has made it easier to forgive myself when someone says, “Hey, I think you missed a spot on your back while you were trying to dry yourself off.”