Today, when I was driving to meet two co-workers for dinner, Neda Ulaby was reporting on the use of "That's racist!" as a common retort used by kids these days. If you missed the story, you can listen to it and read about it here. As I listened to the story, I recalled that I, too, have sometimes jokingly made this comment about things that truly had no correlation to the ugly reality of racism.
When I got home, I opened the front door to let Bailey out. I noticed that my neighbor was walking his dog, a young pit bull mix, across our common green space. Because I hadn't planned on putting Bailey's leash on, I waited inside the door for him to pass. I realized that he was motioning for me to come out. When I got out on my step, he commented that his dog is "super friendly" and he starts walking toward me. I explain that Bailey is "super old." He then replies, "Oh, I see, OK" and turns around but continues to say that his dog is friendly.
Now, I never doubted that his dog was anything but friendly, but the dog is clearly young and exuberant. My neighbor is a young fit man, but he was having to strain to keep the dog on the leash in check. Bailey is not a dog's dog. And, especially, she doesn't like bigger hyper dogs who get all up in her face. I'm quite certain she would have given this dog the growl and most likely the snap. So, as my neighbor walked away, what was running through my head was "That's racist!"
You see, my neighbor is a young black man. As I watched him going up the street with his dog and Bailey was doing her business 5 feet from the door, I felt guilty. Does he think that I was afraid of him? Does he think I assumed he was like Michael Vick and his pit bull mix dog is a trained fighter? Both, of course, are not at all what I was thinking. I thought I was being a considerate dog owner for letting him pass by before Bailey and I came out the door, particularly because I was "breaking Iowa City code" by having Bailey off-leash.
What was he thinking about me? Did he think I was typecasting him and his dog? Did he think I was intolerant? Did he think, "God, what a bitch! I've seen her walking her dog for a year now and just wanted to say hello."
As the NPR story reported:
Regina N. Bradley, who teaches classes in African American literature at Florida State University, says she thinks kids are using "that's racist," to establish that they're not — but even the college students she teaches get confused about the difference between race and race issues. Saying "that's racist" is sometimes a way to get out of difficult discussions about race, she says — which is still a sensitive topic.
Next time my neighbor and I are out walking our dogs, I'll introduce myself and hopefully avoid awkward moments in the future.