Is San Francisco as “Not-Racist” as It Thinks It Is?
I’m not racist.
Those words sound absurd because there probably doesn’t exist a single San Franciscan in 2013 who would admit to being racist – let alone proudly claim it. Of course I’m not racist: I live in San Francisco. Nobody here is racist. Racism is everywhere, but apparently no one’s at the wheel anymore. San Francisco, the city where Obama beat Romney 83-13, is bursting with avowed liberals who work in creative, nontraditional, or high-tech fields. It’s the haven, where hip young people for whom racist discourse is completely unacceptable flock to.
California is, even by American standards, relatively unencumbered by history. Its history is actually incredibly rich, but lies buried under the idea that this is where you go to escape your past and its burdens. Add to that myth San Francisco’s self-image as the Most Tolerant Place on Earth and you have a regime where honest reckonings of how race and privilege intersect can get conveniently squeezed out, erased.
San Francisco prides itself on being a color-blind meritocracy. Unlike many other U.S. cities, we neither have a psycho police department that spies on Muslims nor white-ethnic voting blocs receptive to certain dog-whistle remarks. We’re at the vanguard of twenty-first-century America, right? Not like the Benighted States, that chunk of the continent between Telegraph Avenue and the Hudson River where the real racists live.
I’m not racist, but I am a 32-year-old white guy with an advanced degree and therefore, whether I like it or not, a beneficiary of many forms of privilege. (These things are true no matter how alienating America can feel when you’re also a queer atheist who doesn’t earn a whole lot of money.)
I grew up on Long Island and went to an all-boys Catholic school. You had to be Catholic even to matriculate, and it was more or less explicitly a vehicle for the perpetuation of white male privilege. Out of my class of 401, 400 went to college and about 375 were white.(And Bill O’Reilly graduated from there, too.) When I got into NYU, one of the Marianist brothers who ran my high school told me that it wasn’t a very Christian environment.Whether that meant it was too secular and worldly or too Jewish, I’ll never know.
While I dodged getting the crap beat out of me in high school for being both a faggot and a nerd – and also managed to avoid attending any pro-life rallies – I was at best an unchallenged liberal in a sea of junior Republicans, and my social circle was whiter than a child molester’s van. Fifteen years later, I have all kinds of friends, even a 77-year-old drag queen. Still, when I go to parties, people of all races come, but I notice just how white the group sometimes is. Is it me or is it San Francisco? Just as responding with, “Whatever, dude, I have black friends” is no defense when one makes a racist joke, saying “I wish I had more black and Latino friends” sounds both instrumentalist and a little pathetic. Acquaintances of color aren’t accessories to assuage white guilt. Still… I wish.
While I’d prefer to socialize with more non-Caucasian friends than I already do, my real wish is for this to come about organically – the way I would like to have sex with a hot transman, but not in a dehumanizing way where he thinks I’m only curious about his vagina so I can later make a notch on my proverbial rope. I want to happen to chat up a sexy transguy and then go home with him – just as I want my quotidian life to bring me into greater contact with more cool people of color so that the parties I host or attend are super-fun force multipliers for an affirming, lefty worldview that allows us all to punch a big hole in the invisible, insidious matrix of white privilege, together.
Sometimes I feel like my only weapon against racism is cringing. (Even though I know it's not.) I cringe at the N-word. I cringe at clips of Fox News that people forward with the intention of spreading the cringing around. I cringe when someone refers to a Korean person as Chinese. I cringe when gay white men say things to black women about the spiritual affinity they claim to feel. All I’m really doing is signaling my personal discomfort and, if there are other people around, telegraphing to them my sophistication vis-à-vis the speaker of the racist remarks. Temperamentally, I’m no damn good at actually telling someone, “Um, that was racist; don’t say that,” even if it means I’m sort of passively buying into the conservative trope that accusing someone of racism is worse than racism.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, set in 1967 San Francisco, depicts Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a wealthy, socially prominent couple confronted with their daughter’s engagement to Sidney Poitier. It also features perhaps the most exquisitely self-congratulatory liberal hand-wringing in all of cinema, as they deign to approve their only child marrying an impossibly perfect African American man.
Their solution to a tricky quandary can’t address the anti-Asian animus on Grindr, Craigslist housing ads that emphasize the word “professional,” the selective enforcement of Sit/Lie, or the failure of the ballot prop that would have permitted noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections. White privilege doesn’t open water cannons on people who want a seat in a restaurant anymore. It’s become atmospheric.
It roars out at inopportune moments, too. I voted for Obama in 2008, barely six weeks after moving to SF, and got so drunk in the celebratory aftermath that I don’t remember getting home. In the morning, I awoke to my roommate (an older gay white guy) sputtering about Prop. 8 and all the black people who gleefully voted for “their guy” to win and “us” to lose. It was no use pointing out that not all black people are homophobes (and many are gay!) or that millions and millions of white Californians voted gay marriage down – even liberal Los Angeles County voted for Prop 8. LA county, by the way, is only 9 percent black.
Once I was at a party where someone (a gay white guy) mentioned (in a room largely full of gay white guys) that he was having a tough time finding an apartment in Noe Valley or the Castro. When someone suggested the Mission, he wrinkled his nose and said, “Eww, that’s like…Mexico.” He said this in 2011, while sitting on a couch owned by someone whose name was as much a marker of ethnicity as, say, “Antonio Villanueva.” Of course, I cringed.
I bartended a 40th birthday for a San Francisco native. I usually like events like that, where everyone’s happy and you get to talk to lots of different folks. These party animals got extremely drunk and started dancing with inflatable guitars and all sorts of wigs. A white guy in khakis put on an Afro and started gyrating wildly, drink in hand, to great acclaim through several songs. I caught one of the server’s eyes and we grimaced. When the DJ played the “Macarena,” the dance floor cleared immediately because even the least with-it, most arrhythmic white people instinctively recognize the cue to flee, and thank God for that. But I had provided the alcohol that lowered the inhibitions that led to the spectacle, and I felt gross.
And even then, sometimes my best efforts to be an Aware White Guy feel as clumsy as that drunk dancing. When SF University High School convened a panel for National Coming Out Day 2011, I was invited to participate. We spoke at an assembly for the entire school. It’s a diverse student body and all the speakers connected their personal experiences to what we imagined to be relevant to such an audience. Ericka Huggins was on the panel – the same Ericka Huggins who is a founding member of the Black Panthers. There I was, talking about how shitty high school was in the ’90s while sitting adjacent to a woman who was widowed at 19 and did time in solitary as a political prisoner. Oy. She was very gracious.
The urge to be Not-Racist sometimes leads me to despair. To what extent can I even decry racism that I have not experienced? It’s akin to how I feel about abortion – I very strongly believe that women cannot enjoy equality with men without autonomy over their bodies, period. Yet I will never become pregnant, so does my opinion really matter? I’m sure some women appreciate views like mine, but I’ve come to suspect that it’s a form of male privilege even to assert strong opinions, however enlightened, on the subject of women’s bodies. Or am I being too sensitive? Shouldn’t everyone speak out? Sometimes, I just don’t know.
All I know is, I’m not racist, and neither is anybody else.