I’d Rather Not Know, But Am I Right About That?

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

I was in the grocery store and a guy walked past me wearing a Blue Lives Matter mask. I had a strong urge to tell him off right there in the store. Those who know me know that isn’t typical of me. As a rule, I don’t talk to strangers. I certainly don’t pick fights. When out and about, I try very hard to live my life and let others live theirs. It’s not that I don’t think we should engage people with opposing views, no matter how despicable. It’s just that the grocery store isn’t the right setting for it. It would be counterproductive, at best.

The stab of anger was very much real. I’m under no illusions about being surrounded by decent people. I see similar signs and flags all over on cars and in lawns. All of those signs bother me, but this felt different. There is some element of anonymity with a bumper sticker or lawn sign. I tend to feel sadness and pity when I see them. This guy was literally wearing a sign on his face announcing his racism. He couldn’t be less anonymous. I felt attacked and kind of ragey.

I feel like one of the saddest parts of the last decade has been how people are being more and more open about their racism (and other horrible traits). I’m not blaming Obama at all, but Trump the politician and Trumpism jumpstarted with his election. (Imagine how much better the world would be if Twitter actually enforced their own rules with birtherism.) There is a sentiment that I’ve been hearing my whole life, but I feel like I hear it more now, and I just plain don’t understand it. It’s basically when black people say they prefer open racism to closeted racism. They say Southern racists are better than Northern racists and Texas is better than Oregon. I’m having a strangely hard time finding a quotable source. I often wish search engines helped us find what we were looking for instead of prioritizing the paid and popular, but the idea is that Southern racists are just racist whereas Northern racists are racist and liars. At least you know where you stand with someone who is open about their racism. Like I said, I don’t get it. But, I want to.

It would be easy to dismiss my confusion with a, “You’re white, you can’t understand.” I can’t help but wonder if that’s true. I mean, it is true that I’m white, but I’m also Jewish. Antisemitism is real. From time to time, I run into open anti-Semites. Often it is expressed under cover of being a “Christian.” Sometimes it is expressed as a “joke.” Occasionally it is expressed as a slur. No matter how it is expressed, it sucks (slight understatement). I don’t have any solid numbers, but it seems that for every open anti-Semite, there are many closeted anti-Semites. There’s a good chance that I interact with these closeted anti-Semites all the time. And in these cases, ignorance is bliss. They may have an irrational hatred of me, but I don’t know that, so these people don’t make me at all uncomfortable.

I know that race and religion/ethnicity are not perfectly analogous. For starters, who knows how many anti-Semites I talk to that don’t know I’m Jewish. The histories of American racism and American antisemitism are very different, and, to be blunt, racism is much more pervasive. (To any of my Jewish readers who flinched at this, I am not minimizing antisemitism in any way. The fact is, racism is THE American problem.) So, I know that most black people cannot hide their blackness and have to deal with racism much more often than I have to deal with antisemitism. But, that seems like all the more reason to prefer closeted racists.

The one way I can think about it and sort of understand is to look at it like alcoholism. You can never get someone to stop drinking if they’re not honest about their alcoholism. I can see how you’ll never stop racism until people realize and admit to their own racism. But, before I even finish saying it, there’s a voice in my head countering that while every drink is destructive, not every drink is a way of being open about alcoholism, nor is it an opportunity for intervention. Every expression of racism is destructive, but not every expression of racism is an honest admission of racism, nor is it an opportunity for anti-racism. The guy wearing a racist mask was hurting people, but engaging him in the bakery aisle wasn’t going to change his mind and reduce the amount of racism in the world. It’s more likely that it would have solidified his convictions.

There’s no such thing as good or acceptable racism. It doesn’t matter if it’s closeted or open, racism is hurtful, destructive, and bad. So, it’s a bit odd to even talk about which flavor of racism is preferable. But, I hear people talk about it a lot. I can’t help but wonder, and I want to understand. Please help.

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