Why you should care
Because even if you live in a nice, happy bubble, board a boat with the rest of America and you’ll realize some people are still really, ridiculously racist.
Michelle Tea is the author of five memoirs, including most recently How To Grow Up.
After coming of age north of Boston, in an urban jungle where white people talked smack about people of color on the daily, I have made my adult home across the country in imperfect but aspiring San Francisco, surrounded by sensitive people who have a consciousness of social justice. They, too, were the kids who got picked on at school for being different, who challenged their family’s ignorance in their angry teens. I’ve been in this cozy, self-created bubble for so long I sort of forgot how full of unchecked racism the rest of the world is. And then I went on my honeymoon.
Because there was a possibility I’d be pregnant on our honeymoon, my husband-wife and I figured a good way to cover a lot of terrain, while keeping it easy on my bod, would be a cruise. We put together a honeymoon registry, and our friends and families helped us fund a Caribbean trip on a small craft — big for a yacht, with only 150 guests, but small for a commercial cruise, where bigger ships can top out at 5,000 passengers.
Sure, we thought it might be uncomfortable to be the big lezzes on board a cruise — not specifically denoted for GAY PEOPLE — but being queer, we’re used to navigating situations, skilled at not letting homophobia ruin our fun lives. At first we were sort of pleasantly surprised to find all the normal, upper-middle-class straight white Americans being so nice to us — wow, gay PR has really worked! But slowly we started wishing they were homophobic, so they would stay away from us: ’Cause these white folks were hella racist.
It was a decision I made again and again on our honeymoon — to fight or not to fight?
It started on Day One while chatting with a Massachusetts couple who had met on Millionaire Matchmaker. (Not joking.) The sullen gentleman half of the couple collected assault rifles and wore T-shirts that expressed his opinions, such as the wordy Ted Kennedy’s Car Killed More People Than My Assault Rifle. The female half was the garrulous one, and she opened that evening with the dreaded phrase, “I know this is going to sound terrible, but …” If you really and truly know something is going to sound terrible, please shut up. Don’t pretend to have an actual consciousness about the crap you’re about to jabber, which in this case was, “I just wish they could do something about the staff all looking alike; I can’t tell them apart!”
Was this woman truly suggesting that the cruise line fund plastic surgery for the Indonesian workers, perhaps making them a bit more Caucasian in feature and therefore more ”recognizable” to these Massholes (Masshole = People from Massachusetts who are assholes)? I stood there, shocked, feeling that angry flush rise up through my body, a mixture of anxiety and fury that renders me trembling and speechless. The feeling of being 15 years old. The other white people — a gay male couple among them — rushed in and assured the lady that she wasn’t terrible; they, too, had a hard time distinguishing each totally unique, name-tag-wearing Indonesian crew member from the other! Me and my Husband-Wife picked up soda waters and slid away before I got in a fight.
We live in a culture in denial about white supremacy — a culture set up by white people to benefit white people.
It was a decision I made again and again on our honeymoon — to fight or not to fight? After spending so much time as a young person engaged in such arguments, I didn’t have the illusion that I would enlighten these racists. I would simply sicken myself with hate while on my honeymoon — a trip that was doing double time as a recovery period for a recent miscarriage. This was supposed to be our time to bond and love and heal, not fight with gay men who believed that the city of Miami had been “ruined” by Haitian immigrants, or with the stylish, elderly Jewish woman who looked forward to our trip to St. Barts because the island had “less Blacks.” I would simply grit my teeth and move out of earshot when I heard them passionately query why the Middle East “hates us.” (“It’s because we let our woman vote!” the Masshole proclaimed before an intelligent Californian piped in with a Cliffs Notes version of the legacy of European colonization in the region.)
I once heard racism likened to alcoholism — a disease, one you are never cured of, though a plan of action can grant you a ”daily reprieve” from its insidious toxicity.
Growing up in a culture built on white supremacy, of course white people are racist. I guess the difference between the people I surround myself with now and the people I avoided on my honeymoon is we don’t want to be racist. When racist thoughts occur to us, as they will, it trips an alarm system we’ve spent some time installing. We think about it, correct it, let it go. Sometimes I get pissed at myself, but mostly I have compassion. I don’t want to have such thoughts; I don’t want to have been conditioned by 40-something years as a white woman in America, but here I am.
We live in a culture that remains in denial about the intensity of white supremacy — a culture set up by white people to benefit white people. We haven’t really healed from the trauma of slavery, not to mention the violence of the civil rights movement. With an honest, nationwide reckoning with racism nowhere in sight, it’s up to me to heal the disease in myself —investigating my ideas, putting the lesser thoughts to bed and praying for more intelligent thoughts to replace them. And it happens. Consciousness grows, racism fades. As long as you stay engaged with the process, every single day.
Some months later, I don’t know what to think of the white people on my cruise. Though in the moment I wanted to bottle them and toss them overboard, now I just feel sad. The way you’d feel bad for a drunk spewing crazy in the street. Racism is insane — it makes people sound bonkers, and I believe that being raised around racist rhetoric, indoctrinated, is a form of child abuse. But the only difference between this here Masshole and the one I met on the boat is that I don’t want to be that person. Maybe someday she won’t either.