Other Voices: The essence of racism

In R Lisa Bernard’s July 8 column, “Racism in our neighborhood,” she has shown us, probably inadvertently, why it has been so hard to expunge systemic racism from our society.

She describes a silly suggestion by a neighbor of hers, and I agree with her assessment of it. She goes on to describe other incidents of racism, and, again, I see her point. Then in her last paragraph, she assigns her neighbor to a group based on her sex, race and economic status; scornfully applies a name to that group; and declares the entire group unwelcome in Los Altos.

Let us replace the group name Ms. Bernard used and the members’ characteristics with some others. Let us try a name common among African Americans and “unemployed Black men.” Or perhaps “Juanitas” and “Mexican nannies.” Or maybe “Wongs” and “Chinese laundry owners.” Are not the racism, sexism and classism immediately obvious in those cases?

Now let us apply our newfound insight to the statement she actually made, and realize that putting people into groups based upon their race, ethnicity, sex, economic status, religion, hair color or any other shared characteristic and then passing out benefits or penalties or praise or criticism to all members of the groups as if they were interchangeable parts is the very essence of racism, sexism and all the similar isms that plague our society. If we would like to rise to the challenge presented by Noah Tesfaye in his June 13 online Town Crier column (“Black in Los Altos”) to embrace antiracism, we should stop doing it, right now, every time, in every context, and treat people only as individuals. That may not be sufficient to make us antiracist, but it is without a doubt necessary.

The next time Ms. Bernard’s neighbor makes a foolish proposal, she should tell her about it, individual to individual. It would be all right to say it publicly if she thinks the community would learn something from it, but even if she thinks her neighbor is clueless, she should accord her the respect due to a member of the only group that matters, humanity. To practice being antiracist, she might explain why an individual family might not like to be asked to represent a racial group for the enlightenment of our city.

She might also consider toning down the penalties she proposes for gaffes. In the uproar surrounding the comment Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins made to fellow Councilwoman Neysa Fligor about being “out of her cotton-picking mind,” people by the hundreds were calling for Ms. Bruins to submit to public shaming and to resign from the city council. Would they impose the same penalty on Ms. Fligor if she had told Ms. Bruins that she was “out of her honky mind” or “out of her lily-white mind”? If so, they would be creating an impossible standard that would soon reduce all our legislative bodies to one person each. If not, they would be advancing a double standard, and that kind of hypocrisy is always part of the problem, never part of the solution.

What should be done when someone offends someone else verbally is first, the offender should be told what the offense was and why it was offensive. It is not helpful to say she should have known, and to say “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you” is fatuous. Sometimes offenses are done unwittingly and unintentionally. The offender should then apologize to the offended person, only, and make a pledge to avoid offending in the future. The offended person, only, then judges the sincerity of the apology and accepts it if it passes muster. The two people then start the process of resuming working together, something that admittedly can take a long time. If the offense was made in public, the two might make a public statement about their reconciliation. That is what mature, rational adults do to settle problems that come between them.

There is enough childish insanity going on in our country; Los Altos does not have to add
to it.

Peter Lobban is a Los Altos resident.

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