If racism were volleyball

This post is for white people who feel unjustly accused because they’ve been called out on something. I know how you feel, because I’ve been there too.

So you’re in the middle of a great volleyball game. Everybody’s having fun, you’re really into it. Then you step on somebody’s toe.

“Ouch!” they say. “That really hurt!”

You’re shocked. You look around at all the other players and you imagine a scarlet J (for “Jerk”) has just appeared on the front of your jersey. You gotta protect your reputation.

“I didn’t mean anything by it!” you protest. “Why are you so sensitive?”

You’re absolutely right that you weren’t a jerk for stepping on the toe. That was an accident. You were a jerk for what you said next.

Now there are a half-dozen volleyball players shaking their heads. They go back to the game slightly annoyed and it’s not so fun any more. The person whose toe got hurt thinks you’re a jerk. They were going to ask you out on a date, but they’ve changed their mind. Or worse, somebody starts arguing about whether it was your fault, and next thing you know there’s a big fight. The game’s cancelled.

It’s a bit of a contrived situation. That’s not part of your typical volleyball game. Here’s what would usually happen instead.

“Ouch!” they say. “That really hurt!”

“I’m sorry!” you say. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Everybody goes back to the game and has a good time. The end.

If that’s what happens when you accidentally step on somebody’s toe, how come it’s not what happens when you accidentally make a racist remark? (I’m not talking the n-word here — there are a thousand tiny slights that people of color experience, which cumulatively add up to a badly bruised toe.) The intent is about the same, the harm is about the same. The difference is in our culture. Racism is taboo. You make a racist remark, pretty soon you imagine you’re walking around with a big “R” on your shirt. You’re thinking about you, not the other person.

But there’s a simple fix. A casual “I’m sorry!” usually erases that imaginary R. And it magically helps the toe feel better, too.

How come I know all this? First, because I’ve done it both ways. I go home a lot happier if I said “I’m sorry.” And second, because I have friends who have gotten their toes stepped on, and they’ve told me what it’s like.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts?

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