by Mike Knowles
I had an interesting experience last Sunday at the gym. It was one of those things, that as a writer, almost never happens for me. Let me preface what I am about to write with the admission that I am conversation eavesdropper. I admit it. If I hear two people talking and the subject matter or their diction is interesting, I will focus on them like I’m trying to bend a spoon with my mind. Usually I get street lingo I didn’t know, or a bit of ethnic slang. Sunday I got a big serving of racism.
I’m not a racist by any means, and that has actually shown itself to be a problem for me more than once. I don’t mean that I think there needs to be more racism in the world; it has just been hard for me to write a character who has those feelings because I don’t. Writing racism is hard, because it’s hard to get into a racists head. I can write women, kids, criminals, and cops pretty well, but racism has always been tough for me. It's not like writing mean or angry (those I can do). Racism is a lot different and harder to get a hold on. I think this might be because racism doesn’t really exist. It’s not it’s own thing; it’s a hybrid of concepts like brunch. It gains meaning and identity as a sum of its parts. Racism is really a mix of crazy and stupid. Case in point—the gym.
I was finishing my workout and there were two men beside me having a conversation. Already you should know that these two are douche’s because they’re at the gym to talk to each other, but that is another post for another Sunday. So I’m lifting, and I hear Racist # 1 say, “So I tell my kids, I don’t care how nice they look, or how big they smile. They’re not your friends. They’re not. They’re just not. My wife thinks I’m brainwashing them, but she don’t know how they are.”
My ears picked up and I suddenly began working out on autopilot. I don’t even know if the weights moved for the next three minutes.
Racist #2 leaned in close and mumbled something. I was worried that he had the common sense to chide his friend about his caveman views.
Racist #1 eased my fears. Whatever his friend said spurred him on. “They’re at my kid’s school. I don't know how we keep letting them into the country, but they get in; probably from The States. I don’t know how they afford it. But they’re there. And, you know what? They want to wear those hoods all day long. My kid can't wear a hat in school, but they can wear those things? C'mon ”
I was up to speed after that. Racist #1 didn’t like Muslims.
He went on. “They say it’s their right to wear those hoods, and if the school don’t let ‘em they get offended. What about me? I’m offended all the time by them. Who cares about me?”
Racist #2 had something quiet to say about the hoods which I can only assume are hijabs (I may be wrong, I'm not fluent in dummy).
Racist #2 then saw me staring in the mirror and he nodded towards his friend. Both men looked in my direction and I laughed at them. I put the weights down and left them to argue over who gets to be Grand Dragon. If you're going to ask why I didn't start a ruckus it's because I am a strong believer in free speech, even the bad kind. Even racists should have the right to spout off (sucks but true).
The argument was great because it was everything I thought it would be when I pictured racism in my head. There was no real reason for hating the Muslim kids who went to the same school as the children of Racist #1. There was no common sense behind it. But for the sake of argument, let's pull what we can from the man's words to make sure.
Apparently the people in question can't be trusted no matter how much they smile. I'm guessing this, at its core, has some relation to 9/11. Most of the simple minded racism I come across is rooted in this event. The man who shot up Fort Hood didn't do the Muslim community any favors either mind you. But it seems that 9/11 reinvigorated the concept of water cooler racism. I’ve noticed that after 2001 there are pockets of the community who’ve decided there’s a green light for hate speech in public so long as you aim it at the Middle East. So if we follow the logic of Racist #1, the blood shed on 9/11 makes others who share some element of the faith perverted to achieve the attack part of the conspiracy. It doesn't matter if the people he hates smile and treat him well, he's sure that he knows their real agenda even if everyone else doesn't.
Racist #1's paranoia about a hidden agenda is a side effect of the crazy and stupid that comprises racism. I've seen Racist #1 around for years and he's been a loud talker forever. I know where he works, what he drives, even how much his clothes cost. In terms of social standing, he occupies the spot of stupid upper middle class white guy. His ancestors have been in the country just long enough for him to forget that his family were once immigrants and whatever place they emigrated from has its own share of blood that has been spilled. Racist #1 is self-involved and has strong feelings of entitlement. With those feelings comes a feeling of irrational persecution. He feels that his social standing is constantly under attack from all sides from upwardly mobile immigrants. He thinks that there are people out there who are committed to knocking him off his perch. He doesn't see it as something that can be shared—apparently the upper middle class is already cramped like the back seat of a Chevette. So Racist #1 feels he is doing a public service when he speaks out in public. He doesn't see the irony in trying to keep the spot he attained on the backs of people who were once just like the people he is trashing while he holds a dumbbell.
The method in which Racist #1 trashes the Muslims is a window into the stupid and crazy that has taken the wheel in his head. He uses words like "they" because he doesn't really know who he hates; he just knows he hates "them" and that seems to be enough for him. He questions the intentions of ethnically different people even though according to him the people he warns his kids about have been nothing but nice. Racist #1 also questions how "they" afford to send "their" kids to the same school as his own brood. This is the most telling part for me. Immigrant kids attending the same fancy private school as his upper middle class white kid’s means the pressure is on for Racist #1. The immigrants he hates so much have already equalized their children with his own by sending them to the same school. So, in response, he attacks the religious freedoms of the children and speculates on the legitimacy of the source of their tuition. He can't let anyone catch up to his lead so he resorts to cheap shots and speculation. This proves there is zero rationale for his feelings. If there really was something to protect himself from he would easily be able to articulate what it was. Think about if you tried to call the cops to tell them that “they” are out there and "they" are trying to harm your way of life. Imagine how fast a squad car would show up and figure out who would eventually be leaving in it.
The reason I am writing about this racism and its lack of a coherent underlying thought is because I've had an editor tell me that the racism I tried to portray in a story didn't seem to have much behind it. Experiences like the one I had at the gym make me want to say, "Yeah you're right, it doesn't because real racism has nothing behind it. It's thinking gone wrong." Racism is just irrational paranoia with no real reasoning applied or needed.
But it is not all bad, there is the use of the words of Racist #1 as material of course. I'm going to go green with the hate and use every bit of the racism I heard. I will be like the natives I learned about it grade school who used every part of the buffalo down to the intestines. I am going to absorb everything I heard and reappropriate it. Don't be surprised if you hear Racist #1 in a book down the road. And don't be surprised if Racist #1 doesn't make it to the end in one piece.