White people, can we please all agree right now to eliminate the phrase “I’m not racist, but” from our conversations? This past week, I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law in their new apartment complex in a gentrified side of Charlotte, NC. Think, abandoned old mills converted into $1,700/mo apartments sitting right on the new light rail tracks. To the north and east of this neighborhood are more established wealthy neighborhoods and business districts; to the south and west are historically black and latino neighborhoods: run down, old bungalows, chain link fences, lower performing schools, higher crime rates. The South End, as hip Charlotteans call this side of town, is perfect for the young professionals and bankers who are currently flooding the city. Work is a mere train ride down the tracks, and they only have to step out their door to catch the train. My sister and her husband actually have a pretty sweet deal going: they work with a company that places couples in apartment complexes to run events several times a month, welcome new residents and interview residents who are heading out the door, in exchange for a nearly free two bedroom apartment. The upside is they get to live in a trendy, up-in-coming side of town, with cool bars, cafes and raw food restaurants within walking or training distance of their apartment. Not to mention they get to live in a sweet, new complex, with all the usual amenities and perks (a step up from their last apartment that they had to leave because of a mold infestation). Basically, they get paid to throw parties and hang out with their neighbors. Those are the upsides. The downside is that some of those neighbors are confused, well-meaning white twenty-somethings who refer to the neighborhoods to the south and west of them as the ghetto and say things like: “I’m not racist, but…”
Before I continue, let me guess. You already know where this story is going; my new acquaintance tells me a racist lite story involving a time when her racial stereotypes were confirmed by the actions of a representative of that race’s. However, allow me to reveal the most shocking part of my conversation partner’s (let’s call her Sally) story. The thing that followed “I’m not racist, but” wasn’t actually racist. The story she told was about a time over the weekend when she was at a bar and she met a guy who introduced himself as Black Charlie. “I’m not racist,” she said, “but that’s what he called himself and he happened to be black.” The story was about how Black Charlie at first had amused her, entertained her, but as time went on, made her feel uncomfortable when he expressed a sexual desire to suck on her toes.
So why did Sally feel the need to preface this story about her confrontation with a foot fetishist with the caveat “I’m not racist but”? I’ve thought about this long and hard and here are the possible explanation I’ve considered: A. Because she did not, in the end, enjoy his company and that made her feel guilty because he was black and she was worried people would connect those two unrelated details. B. Because he was black, had put voice to that fact, had insisted that others put voice to that fact, and so, inevitably, she had noticed his race, and, because of her background she is not sure how to separate noticing race from being a racist. C. Because she knew she was about to tell a story featuring a black man that cast him in a negative light and that made her feel guilty of having racist thoughts. D. Because she is a woman in a patriarchal world who feels the need to apologize for men who sexually harass her.
People, please, tell me what you think. Anyone care to shine some light on this situation for me? Why do we continue to use this phrase? And if we insist on using it, why do we use it incorrectly? Shouldn’t only people who are actually racists use this phrase? What do you think about this phrase? How can we get rid of it and have honest conversations about race in its place?
And, white people, why do we feel like it’s racist to notice a person’s race? And non-white people, is it racist?