Pain of racism can sting more when source is familiar
Timothy Welbeck remembers being 24 and at work venting to colleagues in his majority white office about how police had pulled him over 22 times in 19 months — a phenomenon known among African-Americans as “driving while black.”
A white female co-worker whom he’d known for four years listened to his story and replied: “You drive too fast.”
Welbeck felt betrayed. He considered her enough of a friend “to know that I don’t drive recklessly and I’m not a threat to law enforcement.”
“This idea that you could know me, I express a legitimate experience to you, and somehow I’m to blame. I would expect a stranger to do what she did,” said Welbeck, now 35, a lawyer and Temple University professor living in Philadelphia.
Racism in any form is painful enough for black Americans. But when prejudice comes from someone they trust, or consider an ally, it adds salt to the wound. Experts call this the stress of racial disappointment: When people who are expected to understand injure minorities with offensive words or behavior.
Some blacks wrestled with this feeling June 2 when Bill Maher, host of the late-night cable television show “Real Time With Bill Maher,” jokingly referred to himself as a “house nigger” during an interview with a congressman.
To some, it seemed unlikely coming from Maher. His outspoken support of Black Lives Matter, and the way he railed against the racial undercurrent of the 2016 election that swept Donald Trump into the presidency, led them to consider Maher a reliable ally against racism.
The backlash was swift. Calls for Maher’s firing ricocheted across social media. A week later, Maher had several black guests appear on his show and he apologized, clearly aggrieved by his insensitivity.
“It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t said in malice if it brought back pain to people. That’s why I apologize freely,” Maher said during the June 9 episode.
“What made you think that it was cool to say that?” rapper/actor Ice Cube pointedly asked Maher during one exchange.
“There was no thought put into it,” Maher replied.
“I think it’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they’re a little too familiar ... and they think they can cross the line,” Ice Cube continued. “They can’t.”
On his following show Friday, Maher interviewed Breitbart News editor-in-chief Alex Marlow. The conservative website has been criticized for promoting racially offensive views.
Maher challenged Marlow after he accused the media of lying about Trump supporters as being “racist, despicable and deplorable.”
“But they have been,” Maher interrupted. “The president of the United States has retweeted white supremacists.”
The Maher conversations highlighted a common teachable moment between blacks and whites in American society, where conversations on race remain uneasy and, sometimes, familiarity blurs boundaries.
For blacks, this is far more upsetting than bigotry from someone who obviously lacks egalitarian racial views, said Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director of The Perception Institute, a research consortium focused on racial bias in daily life.
“We have a scheme in our brains for that,” Johnson said. “For people who talk the talk, when they don’t walk the walk, it makes us even more disappointed because we’ve raised our expectations that we have an ally. It takes us to a totally different place.”
Maher is not the only white celebrity to have been in this predicament. In 2006, “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards launched a racist tirade after hecklers annoyed him during a Los Angeles comedy act. In 2013, celebrity chef Paula Deen lost endorsements and her nationally televised cooking show after admitting under oath as part of a lawsuit that in the past, she had used the N-word in reference to blacks.
Deen begged forgiveness in an emotional videotaped apology. “I want people to understand that my family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are,” she said.
Symone Sanders, a political commentator who was a guest on Maher’s show, said in a later interview that such experiences can be jarring because blacks set higher expectations of racial understanding for their friends.
“In that moment, it seemed as though he really didn’t understand,” she said.
Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, who has known Maher for nearly two decades, sat down with Maher on the show in a moment of reckoning and remorse.
“There was a comfort there around black people that’s laudable on the one hand, but problematic on the other,” Dyson told The Associated Press in an interview afterward. “A lot of white people are not familiar with our culture. They’re not invested in the same way, and we’re not disappointed in the same way with them.”
Such slights, however unintentional, can be hard to forget — particularly if they happen early in life.
Sanders recalled feeling outraged after several white classmates skipped her 16th birthday party because their parents wouldn’t allow them to go to her majority-black Omaha, Nebraska, neighborhood, which one close friend from her cheerleading squad described by using the N-word.
“I’d been to her house, she’d been to my house,” said Sanders, who added the two remain friends today. “It just reminded me that we were not the same, in the sense that I’m still a black person in America and she’s still a white person in America.”
It’s been 30 years, but Welbeck still remembers vividly the day his kindergarten class was assigned to draw self-portraits. Eager to portray his fair, African-American complexion as accurately as possible, Welbeck grabbed a peach-colored crayon and began to color.
His white friend interrupted — and handed him a black crayon.
“You’re not white,” the boy said.
“I was jolted by it,” Welbeck said. “I didn’t understand how he could look at that crayon, and look at me.”
Errin Haines Whack is a member of AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow her work on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous .