I like them, they like me, we have interesting and thought-provoking conversations and then we leave and go about our personal business. The relationship that I have with my Spin class has made me aware that it’s possible to know there’s a lot of racism in our society and institutions but to realize that I don’t have to project that onto all of my daily interactions. It has occurred to me that a lot of white people have good intentions but sometimes may not know how to express them in the face of the racism that exists in the U.S.—and that affects all of us.
I worry that too many black people fail to make a distinction between good intentions gone wrong and subtle racism. Sometimes white people simply don’t know they’re being offensive because, unless they were raised in black neighborhoods, the only image they have of black people is what they see on television. That’s ignorance and cluelessness, but it’s not hate.
Not all black people enjoy Tyler Perry movies, rap music or BET. I know I certainly don’t (although I am a big fan of Being Mary Jane). And white people are as diverse, flawed and complicated as we are. But that doesn’t mean their every action should be scrutinized through the lens of “the r-word” and that we should feel personally offended and cut them off as friends if they make a misstep.
This isn’t just about being nice to white people. There’s a practical side to it, too. As a photographer, I sell most of my work to the white community, so I benefit from having strong relationships across cultures. If I had a negative attitude, assumed that white folks were all out to get me or became deeply offended and shut down at every perceived slight, I certainly wouldn’t have a market for my work (or, at least, I’d have a limited one). I also wouldn’t have a chance to develop the kinds of relationships that can make my white friends more aware of the black experience (versus just afraid to say anything that will get them in trouble).
In the face of media exploitation of the black experience, perhaps we should consider not being defensive about every unintended awkward statement made by white people and try to see the good that is possibly intended. Perhaps we should focus on the long game and build the type of relationships that might ultimately dismantle the stereotypes and unconscious biases that we all harbor. Eventually, I believe, this could lead to more friendships, less ignorance and fewer headlines about racist tragedies. Until then, you can find me and some of my best white friends at Spin class every morning.
Gregory E. Johnson is a native of Ohio who now resides in Nashville, Tenn. He is a photographer and a certified Spin instructor. His writing has been featured in the New York Times as well as various health and wine publications.
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