Confessions of an accidental racist

Conrad Frommelt considers what it means to be racially ignorant.


| Aaron Fooks/THE CHIMES

Conrad Frommelt, Writer

As a white, Protestant, upper middle class male who grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, I did not pay attention to race for most of my life. Instead, I made friends based mainly on personality and similar class schedules.

Many of the people I knew came from a variety of ancestries and belonged to many different cultures but this was mostly an accident. Because I paid very little attention to the racial ancestry of my friends or people in general, I believed everyone was, more or less, like me.

Then a young man was shot in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting and subsequent events revealed a deep anger many in our nation feel, an anger that centers on unequal treatment because of one’s race. And because of my ignorance about racism, I cannot fully make sense of this anger.

In my limited experience, people of different races did not seem radically different from myself and, as far as I could tell, they were not treated differently. All the middle-class kids got along well at my mostly rich, mostly white schools. On the surface, the differences between me and my friend who was a fourth generation Asian-American were almost negligible. We ate the same food, believed the same things, and had the same viewpoints. If I described her to you, I would not lead with her ethnicity. It might not even come up.

This kind of racial insensitivity is a luxury. Because nothing forced me to face the cruel restrictions of systemic racism or the identity-crushing looks of social racism, I have fallen a step behind. Often I forget that racism exists. Most of my conversations are not about being culturally marginalized. Generally, racism only appears as a second or third rate concern that affects me in an indirect way, like the strength of our financial sector.

This ignorance severely limits my ability to talk about issues involving race. I do not know what to do with the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. In a very real sense, I am color blind. I lack the physical light receptors to rightly perceive reality around me. My eyes need help to re-interpret how they see those who are different than me.

My inability to understand the rage surrounding the shooting in Ferguson is troubling. At the very least, I think of it as my responsibility to try and see like those who see better than I can. But maybe the problem of racism extends beyond an issue of vision. What if it originates in the heart?

A young man was killed and a mother lost a son.  Even with my eyes closed, my heart goes out to that family and to the police officers and their families. Every human death feels like a tragedy and though I mourn with the community, I do not know how to interact with the complex problem of racism in my community or in my country.

But I do know you bring grieving people food and hold their hand while they cry. In this way at least, I can start to understand the pain and some of the rage felt by those across the country. It is a first step. I still do not know what a person who is negatively affected by racism feels. But I know what it feels like to lose someone. So now, hopefully, I can start to learn more about those who are marginalized and shed some of my racial ignorance .

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