Sunday, March 23, 2008

Race: A Personal Confession

In response to Barak Obama's call for a dialogue on race, let me contribute my own popular style of confessional among white liberals -- my discovery that I was not altogether free of racial prejudice. The photograph above was my moment of revelation. This picture was taken in New Orleans. The three black people gathered around the truck are the hazmat team (note the uniforms). I do not know whether anyone else immediately recognized them for what they were. But anyone who did not, anyone who may have seen danger in this picture, may be excused from any charge of racism. How could you have known? Only one person has no such excuse -- me. You see, I took that picture.

I was in New Orleans taking part in the post-Katrina cleanup. The contract for the garbage collectors who were supposed to pick up the contents removed from gutted houses had just expired, and piles of debris were sitting up and down the street, with no one knowing when they would be collected. But there was still a hazmat team that collected chemicals too toxic for the general landfil (i.e., the cleaners from under people's sinks). So I took their picture to reassure myself that at least something contructive was being done.

But when I reviewed it at the end of the day after finishing work, instead of the hazmat team, I saw three black people gathered around around a truck, and immediately stiffened, as if the picture showed something sinister. Intellectually I knew they were just the hazmat team. Their uniforms were clearly visible. I had taken their picture only a few hours earlier specifically because they were the hazmat team. And yet I still had that gut-level reaction to my own photograph.

And that was how I learned that I am not free of racial prejudice.


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