I told this story on myself at a dinner last month, so I might as well embarrass myself and tell it again.
It's allergy season in my part of the country, and every year I am reminded — by all the sniffling and sneezing around me, including in my own house — that I was a grown woman, a graduate of an Ivy League college, before I realized that black people had allergies.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but it's true.
I never had allergies, of course (I barely knew what a tree looked like where I grew up), and no one I knew had allergies — that anybody ever talked about, anyway. I never saw anybody who looked like me on the commercials for allergy medicine; I had never met any black doctors who treated allergies, and so on and so forth. And I have to tell you, I never questioned the underlying assumption, because I just assumed it was true.
I didn't know what I didn't know.
It wasn't until I started dating the man who would become my husband, whose annual battle with pollen is an epic adventure, that I realized that I was carrying around a completely false assumption.
Can I just tell you, I think this kind of thing might be what really inhibits the way forward on race in this country. It's like a virus you don't even know you have, so you never bother to treat it.
I have been thinking a lot about what Attorney General Eric Holder said in his now-famous Black History Month speech, that we are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race. But I wonder whether it's really that we are just comfortable. Cowardice requires consciousness — a conscious awareness to choose not to do something you know you should do.
But what if you don't know?
This matters because the consequences of this not knowing are devastating for some of us. Survey after survey shows that black people who present medical professionals with identical symptoms and an identical socioeconomic status as whites still receive less aggressive medical care than whites. Black kids are more likely to be placed in foster care than white kids with comparable home environments. Black home buyers, with identical assets and credit histories as white buyers, were still far more likely to be steered to less desirable mortgage loans, and on and on.
Is this active hostility, fear, resentment of blacks? At one time, sure it was. But right now, maybe it's more likely unchallenged assumptions you've forgotten you have — the store clerk who assumes the black woman can't afford the dress she's trying on, the law firm hiring partner who just assumes the black kid made it through Harvard on a wing and a prayer, the cop who just assumes every black motorist is a gangbanger in training.
And, yes, it certainly goes both ways. A community organizer friend of mine who was, for a time, the only white member of her organization's staff, told me how she came in from the field for a staff meeting one day where food was served to discover that no one had bothered to save her any. It was as if her colleagues somehow thought they didn't need to look out for her because she's white, and she didn't need the free meal as much as they did, although she earned the same tiny pay.
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we all do it. We make assumptions, and we don't bother to test them because we don't have to.
So now the question really does become one of moral courage and, yes, cowardice. What are we prepared to do to break free of untested assumptions? What hard questions are we prepared to ask ourselves? What are we prepared to do to know what we don't know?
Or, are we just going to stay in a fog of happy ignorance, no matter how much it hurts our fellow countrymen and women?