Tips of the hat to Shakespeare's Sister and Deborah Lipp for inspiring me to write about this. Kudos to Chris Clarke for the blogswarm idea.
I was born innocent of racism and managed to grow up in the South without "getting it" until I was in my 20s. Suddenly I looked back on my childhood and figured out part of why everyone thought I was weird. (Ok, the rest of it was 'cause I was a total geek.) So I've gone through about a 10 year period of self-examination of my thoughts and feelings about racism. I still don't entirely get it, but I get that it matters to other people. For instance I'm going to a birthday party tomorrow where I know the majority (if not all the rest) of the attendees will be black and the question I asked myself wasn't "will I be uncomfortable?" but "will they be uncomfortable?" Yes, there is racism in both directions. When you blithely wander around happy to talk to anyone you figure this out. I decided I don't care if any of them are racist because I adore the birthday girl and she invited me. She's also one to blithely wander around and happily talk to anyone so we get along famously and can talk for hours about racism from our different perspectives (I'm white, she's black).
I ended up facing the issue of racism in America because I assisted a Civil Rights office (from a finance perspective) at work in the mid 90s. I found their information interesting because I was innocent to the point of thinking that everyone (except the total cretins) had gotten aboard the rainbow train back in the day. Au contraire, the data said. I went home and said to myself, "Am I racist and I don't even realize it? I'm white and my husband is white. Am I insulated?" Then I thought about my group of friends and realized something that I had NEVER NOTICED BEFORE. They were diverse. One whose Mom was from Mexico City. One whose Mom was from the Philipines. One whose dad was black and Mom was from Korea. These things hadn't even hit my radar because, well, it just didn't matter to me. If you're a smart friendly geek then you and I will be friends - regardless of race, religion, or (although this is harder these days) political affiliation. We'll play roleplaying games and talk about science fiction movies.
Regarding the world at large I SEEK The Other (as Shakes Sis calls it) because I think people who are not like me are fascinating. I ask them all sorts of questions. And "not like me" means - geographically, politically, or intellectually. Sometimes that falls on race lines ("What was it like to grow up in a traditional Indian family in America?" to my buddy Sanjay), sometimes race is incidental to it ("What was it like to grow up in mainland China?" to my co-worker who was old enough to remember when her family fled the country), and sometimes it doesn't matter at all ("What was it like to live in New York City?" to my co-worker who lived my dream of going to school for writing in the Big Apple).
I always tell my friends that my dream of the future is very simple and based on an experience I had as a kid. I was watching a history documentary on America in the 1800s and in passing they showed a picture of a sign in a store window where they were looking for help that said, "No Irish Need Apply." The documentary touched on this topic very briefly and went on. I sought out my mother, the history major. "Mom! Mom! Did you KNOW that? Did you KNOW that people were prejudiced against the Irish?" She looked at me like I was a bit demented. "Yes, honey, that was a big thing. Especially when so many Irish immigrated during the famine." I was blown away. My family is primarily Irish and I didn't know that a hundred years earlier, when my great-great grandfather came across the Atlantic, that he was greated with signs like that. I didn't realize that it was a pretty big deal that my grandfather had gotten a degree in Engineering. I didn't realize that there was a time when we were categorized as shiftless, lazy drunkards. What the hell? So that's my dream. That one day in the not too distant future every kid will learn about racism not through personal experience, but through a tv show on a Saturday afternoon. That they will have to run through the house yelling, "Mom! Mom! Did you know..."