Holding the Smog-Breathers Accountable

My mom was born in South Africa, and when I was in the fifth grade, everybody asked why I was not black. I remember thinking how ignorant these kids were, and wondering why they thought everybody born in Africa was automatically a person of color. There were times where I felt bullied, and I was uncertain about my identity. Here I was being told that I should be black, when the color of my skin was white. As a child, I did not see why there was so much importance placed on the color of ones skin. My mom always told me to ignore their comments. They were just silly kids. Today, I don’t believe they were trying to be insulting—they were simply misinformed.

In class, we have learned that people draw all sorts of conclusions from what they do not know. This is why I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. We can’t place blame on someone who is clearly in the dark can we? This question is more complex than it appears. I would assume everybody knows a person who has voiced prejudiced beliefs. Did you stop being their friend the moment they made a comment you disagreed with? My assumption is no—at least the majority of the time.

Picture yourself as a young child, where much of what you know stems from what your parents or a trusted adult tells you. We can assume by the same token that our parents’ views have been shaped by their parents, and so forth. Prejudice, and even racism, to some extent, is “inherited”. Prejudiced beliefs, whether they are voiced or not, may follow down the family line until one family member decides that enough is enough. Now, fast forward to when your friend made an insulting comment. How did you approach the situation? Did you justify it by thinking they didn’t mean it that way? Did you quickly change the subject as a way of avoiding a potentially awkward conversation? If your answer is yes to either of these questions, you are doing more harm than good.

It is true that people should not be punished for the beliefs they may hold. After all, they could have been “inherited” at a young age, when children do not know any better than to believe the words coming out of their parents’ mouth. However, after becoming educated on the topic of racism, it is your duty to educate them. It is your duty to explain in a productive manner that what they say is problematic—otherwise you too are contributing to the problem.

I am now a senior in college; but, as a freshman, I was passive when hearing racist remarks. There were countless times I heard the n-word, and turned a blind ear, so to speak. I heard many Black jokes where I did not know how to react other than nervously laugh or half-heartedly say, “Stop, don’t say that”. Today, I will be active. I will no longer stand still on the moving sidewalk. Standing still is remaining frozen, and remaining frozen does not begin to solve racism.

We have a long way to go before racism can truly be eradicated, but I believe the first step is acknowledging that everybody—including you—is prejudiced. As told by Beverly Tatum, “prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society”(124). Further, “None of us would introduce ourselves as “smog breathers” (and most of us don’t want to be described as prejudiced), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing in the air?”(Tatum, 125). You and I have breathed in the smog. Your friends and family have breathed in the smog. But, smog breathers need to be held accountable for beginning to want to make a change.

The first step may be addressing a microaggression, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Just think: a ton of feathers still weighs a ton. We can speak up against microassaults, which are overt forms of racism. An example may be telling a racist joke knowing it may be hurtful. We can also avoid microinvalidations, or the response of “they didn’t mean it that way” to marginalized groups. Moving forward, will you be an active fighter against racism or a passive bystander? What will you do to begin to make a positive change?