Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I should have spoken up: A story of race fail

I am a 36 year old disabled woman who has been variously labeled "fat", "crazy", and "a hippie weirdo." I now try to embrace labels that others use in an attempt to "shame" me into being someone more "acceptable". I am passionate about issues of race/racism, criminal (in)justice, fat acceptance, and mental health advocacy. I blog at My Name Is JuJuBe and I am on the team at The Intersection of Madness and Reality

Every two weeks I go to “mobile foodshare” sites around the city I live in. It is a program that shares fresh fruit and vegetables with people who are unable to afford them independently. Since my food stamp allowance has been reduced significantly since I moved, I have been taking advantage of this service to prepare healthier meals. Since they distribute enough food for a large family to each individual, I usually take some of what I am given and give “care packages” to other friends in need,

The other day, the people at the foodshare site were giving out cases of yogurt. The people in the front of the line were given one case each, while towards the end of the line, everyone was given two cases, since the people running the site knew how many people that needed to feed by that point. I was given one case, but when I walked past the site again while waiting for my bus, one of the women volunteering offered me a second case, which I gladly took.

Then, as I was still waiting for the bus, a Black man was expressing his anger that he had received only one case of yogurt. He was told that since he had already passed through the line, he could not go back again and get another case. He said “I see how it is....you all only want to take care of your own people!” (all of the foodshare volunteers at this specific site are Latino/a as are most of the people who use the service) Since I live alone, I offered this man my second case of yogurt. At first he declined, but when I offered it again, he did take the yogurt and left the site. And I went home thinking I had done the right thing.

So, I went home and began thinking about the situation in more depth. My automatic first response was that this was NOT about race, this man simply received only one case of yogurt because he was in the front of the line, before they began to distribute two cases to each person. But then I realized that I was given a second case even though I had already been through the line, while HE was turned down because he had already received his allotted food.

So, was his statement that “you only want to take care of your own people” true? Again, I thought not because he was speaking to Latino/a people, and I am not a Latina. Then I thought about it.... the neighborhood where I live is about 65% Hispanic and less than 10% white. I have dark, wavy hair and have been approached by people speaking Spanish on many occasions. I have been asked time and time again since I moved here if I was an immigrant, or if my parents were immigrants of Hispanic origin. So I had to wonder.... when I was given the extra yogurt were the volunteers, in fact, thinking they were “taking care of their own people”??

I spoke to a friend with whom I often discuss issues of racism. He was furious with me. He told me that I was doing more damage to the cause of ending racism than I was helping. He also said that if he were the gentleman at the foodshare site, he would have been highly insulted that I offered him a case of yogurt instead of standing up and saying something about the fact that he was being discriminated against because of his race. He told me he would have had the perception that I was offering him the yogurt simply to appease him, and that I might as well have thrown the food and him and said “just take the fucking yogurt and shut up!”

I wanted so badly to excuse myself for failing to say something about the situation at the time that it happened. I wish I could go back and stand up with this man and express the wrongness of what happened. I wish I could apologize to him for failing to speak up. But I can’t do that.

This is just an example to me of how any white person WILL at some point, FAIL when it comes to addressing racial discrimination. White folks want to give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to racism because it benefits us to deny that discrimination is occurring based on race. I should have spoken up that day, but I didn’t, because I did not want to make waves since I use this service on a regular basis. So, I not only ignored the fact that this man was being discriminated against, I DENIED it entirely. And spent the next week trying to justify my own inaction to myself.

When the friend I discussed this with mentioned the story numerous times over the past two weeks, I wanted to justify my inaction to him. I wanted to fight the idea that I failed tooth and nail. I wanted to find some excuse for me not, as he put it “practicing what I preach”.  And,I wanted to not mention issues of racism to him again, because he would take me to task about this specific event again.

Then I realized that I NEED to be held responsible when I fail. I need to learn from events like this one so that there is not a repeat of it. And, I cannot refrain from discussing issues of race and racism for fear that I will have to hear about the times I have failed. I have to use this to make me more effective in the fight for justice.