I Was a Racist Who Didn't Understand Racism. Now I Do
By Brendon Tucker
I’m a 23-year-old white guy from the Hill Country, and I feel pretty lucky about a mistake that I made when I was in high school that landed me in jail. Lucky because that mistake pushed me to change my politics. And even become a better Texan.
My grandparents got me into politics. They wear matching Breitbart t-shirts. I learned to be a conservative because that’s what I was told, and not just by my family but my high school. In history class we watched the conservative cable news and talk show “The O’Reilly Factor” every day.
In Canyon Lake, where I grew up, I had no idea I was a racist. Everyone there is — they just don't know it. Every joke out of your mouth is a racist joke. You say the N-word all the time, and you think it's funny. And when you make a joke so many times, you build the stereotype into your framework and you believe it, whether or not you think you do.
When I was 17. I took a left at a stop sign at 2 a.m. near a school and failed to use my blinker. When the police stopped me they found the leftovers of a joint on my lap — the bit that had fallen out while I was rolling it. The school was a “drug-free-zone,” so I got charged with a Class A misdemeanor. I spent three months in jail.
That was six years ago and because of my record, there are a lot of jobs I can’t get. I had an offer from an organization that works with troubled kids. I filled out the form and was truthful answering the question, “Any crimes?” They said, “You’re a danger to children.” I got interviewed at a bank: they said they couldn’t insure me. I had an offer from Audi to sell cars. I showed up and after they saw the checked box in my application they said, "Sorry.”
The one place that did hire me was a Ross department store. I was the only white guy, and all the friends I made there were black. Working among black people is how I finally learned about racism.
I worked there for a couple of months and then I got a promotion to loss prevention even though other people had been there longer and had college degrees and kids. And then they moved me up again. I was like, “Why am I the only one getting promoted?” My friends said, “Why do you think?”
Working there was my first time I saw how racism can hurt someone. There was a young woman who worked with me. She was sweet, went to church three times a week, sang in the choir, never uttered a curse word. A white lady walked into Ross with her kids, and they were throwing ketchup on the clothes. My co-worker went up and said, "I'm so sorry. You're going to have to take the food out. We can't have food in here."
The woman threw the rest of the food on the ground and said, "Pick it up, N-word. That's your job.” I watched this girl break down to the point where she had to go home.
Another time, a lady who left her purse in a fitting room walked out to grab another tshirt and walked back to the wrong fitting room. She immediately accused one of my black co-workers of stealing her purse. She called the police.
The police said, "So why'd you steal the purse?" "She didn't steal the purse,” I said, “the lady walked into the wrong dressing room.” The cop didn't believe my co-worker or the manager until I, the only white dude, stepped in and said something.
That’s how I learned about the evil that racism is and just how prevalent it is, and how it's still around.
During Trump’s “zero tolerance” family separation crisis this summer, I came down to South Texas to protest at the border. I ended up renting a little apartment in Brownsville and cooking meals for refugees who’ve been released from detention with nothing: no money, no food. I also cook for refugees who are stuck and literally living on the international bridges because our border agents are illegally blocking them from crossing to ask for asylum.
So this is my job now: using donations to make inexpensive meals for immigrants. Pasta, rice, beans, bacon. Calories and protein. Warm, nourishing, welcoming.
My grandparents are into the whole fear-based Trump thing about immigrants, how they’re all criminals, rapists, and murderers. So many people have never met the people I’m cooking for. If they did, I swear, they would like them.
I’ve had a couple of immigrants stay over at my apartment, and I’ve invited them to join me: "You want a beer?" "Oh, no,” they say. Then they talk about God. “OK, how about a cigarette?” “Oh no!” And then they pray for 30 minutes. I wish everyone could meet them.
I have a friend in Canyon Lake, and we've talked politics for hours. "I agree with you,” he says. “But dude, I'm not going to put bumper stickers on my car. I'm not going to be vocal about it. I'll lose my job."
And I’m, like: “Dude, you can vote! Voting is confidential! Even in Texas. You know what you need to do? Get yourself to the polls in November. I’m not going to tell you whom to vote for — you already know. I’m just telling you — vote your conscience.
Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.