Columns

JOAN VENNOCHI

How can white people ‘walk the walk’ against everyday racism?

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Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

Sandra L. Fenwick, the CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital, was waiting for her car after a recent board meeting at the Four Seasons. Waiting alongside her was a hospital board member who is African-American. That’s when another man walked up and tried to hand his car keys to the board member, thinking he was the valet.

Fenwick told that anecdote at a Get Konnected event convened by Colette Phillips, a Boston public relations consultant who has tapped into diversity as a headline-grabbing networking model. There’s certainly PR benefit to “honoring” a bunch of white women who supposedly “walk the walk” when it comes to race and equity. But it wasn’t all fun and smug glory – especially when WCVB’s Karen Holmes Ward, who hosted the live-streamed event, asked us how we personally handle racist situations. Fenwick said she explained to the person trying to hand over their keys that the board member was not the help. That, she said, elicited an apology.

Changing a street sign or putting up a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. — those are big, symbolic ways to confront Boston’s history of intolerance and signal the city’s collective desire for an image reboot. But as individuals, how do we deal with small doses of everyday racism? Do we stand up for big issues like equal pay and workplace diversity but stand down when it comes to calling out injustices we see in everyday life? Do we see something and say something?

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To any person of color, what Fenwick witnessed is not news. It reminded me of a past interview at the Last Hurrah with Darnell L. Williams, the president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Massachusetts, when another customer mistook him for a waiter. I wrote about it afterward. But in the moment, I didn’t address the customer who told Williams he was waiting for two more people to arrive.

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Thanks to social media, routine racism is now frequently recorded and documented. In 2018, a customer at a Philadelphia Starbucks store recorded two black men being arrested by police officers while waiting for a friend. Police were called on three black women who were checking out their Airbnb rental in Rialto, Calif. In San Francisco, a woman threatened to call police about a young African-American girl selling water bottles. Closer to home, at Smith College, in Northampton, a white employee called the campus police after seeing a black student whom she said “seemed out of place.”

And that’s just a tiny sampling of what my colleague, Renée Graham, describes as an “irrational white fear” of black people merely living their lives. Besides that fear factor, there’s also an irrational white desire to believe things aren’t as bad as black people say they are.

That explains our great relief when an alleged hate crime turns out to be a hoax, or a possible hoax, as in the confusing case of Jussie Smollett. The “Empire” actor said he had been attacked by two men who taunted him with homophobic and racial slurs. Then, to the great relief of white people everywhere, Smollett was accused of staging the attack and charged with 16 felony counts. When all the charges were dropped, white people had a new reason to be angry about the injustice of it all: How dare a black person be found neither guilty of a crime nor exonerated?

Most matters involving race are not that dramatic. They don’t involve famous people and they happen without video testimonials. There’s not always a leap to call police — but often an insidious leap to judgment about another person’s profession or social status, based on their skin color. In that moment, do we confront it, or uncomfortably look the other way? That’s the difference between walking the walk and just talking it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.