What Bully Dogs And Bikinis Can Teach Us About Racism

This week I haven’t found watching cute puppy videos nearly as much fun.

Our country is confronting ugly truths. And hopefully starting to have important conversations. About racism.
Don't Shoot poster.

What Bully Breeds Teach Me About Racism

Racism is a white people problem.

Yes, it’s people of color who bear the brunt of racism. But it’s white people who need to change. And not just the white people who use racial slurs or who bring out a gun when a black woman turns up on their doorstep or who think lethal force is an appropriate response to someone committing a misdemeanor.

How do I know?

The pit bulls have told me.

Pismo the pit bull.

How could anyone be afraid of me? I’m adorable.

Everyone who fights against breed specific legislation (BSL) knows that it’s not a pit bull problem. It’s a people problem.

Heck, if towns outlawed every breed that ever bit anyone, they’d be rounding up golden retrievers too.

But pit bull mixes are now demonized dogs, just like German shepherds and Doberman pinschers were for earlier generations.

I love pit bulls. Every one I’ve ever known has been goofy and lovable. If you asked me, I’d tell you that BSL is unfair and does nothing to prevent dog bites.

And yet I have a guilty confession—when I meet a short coated dog with a big blocky muzzle, I’m more apprehensive than if that dog had a long coat and a floofie tail.

Yep, I don’t like it. But I’m a little prejudiced against pit bulls.

It’s not rational. I know it’s wrong. But I’ve taken the bad information I hear around me and let it influence my perceptions.

So if you’re a white person who says you’re not racist, I say you’re lying to yourself. Because it’s only human to be influenced by your culture. And U.S. culture, whose founders owned enslaved people, is deeply racist.

I know what I’ve just said is very hurtful. But stay with me. Because bikinis have something else to tell us about racism too.

Body Image And Racism

Google tells me that most people who read Something Wagging are women. So I think this example will ring true for many of you.

You have a wonderful body. It takes you where you need to go. It may have borne children. It’s beautiful.

But how often do you feel that way about it?

Would you go out in a bikini today? Probably not. Most women wouldn’t.

Even professional models spend hours on make up and hair before doing a photo shoot. And editors touch up the final images so they’re even more perfect than an already artful reality.

Beauty magazines.

You know that the messages we see on television or read in magazines about body perfection are ridiculous. You’re not a less valuable human being because the backs of your thighs aren’t perfectly smooth or the fat on your arms keeps moving after you stop.

But you’ve probably taken the message that your body isn’t good enough into your heart. It influences what you see. It changes what you do.

Is it possible that even though we know that all people are equally valuable, that the messages we hear in our culture cause us to feel differently way deep down without even being aware of it?

Uncle Sam poster.

How Our Surroundings Change What We See

I used to live in Southwest Philadelphia. At the time, census data showed my zip code’s population was 99% African-American.

You know the racist presumption that all people of the same race or ethnicity know each other? Well in my case it was true. There were so few other white people around that we all knew each other by name.

Philadelphia sign.

Philadelphia – city of brotherly love.

Once my sister and I went shopping at an outlet mall in the Philadelphia suburbs. After her car broke down, we picked up a bus to get back into town.

We both felt kind of weird on that bus. At first, we didn’t know why. But finally we realized it was because every single person on that bus was white.

It had been a long time since I had been anywhere that was so lily-white. And I felt uncomfortable. It made me think of cross burnings in South Philadelphia and KKK rallies in Baltimore.

My everyday surroundings changed what I saw while riding on a bus filled with white people. And it made me feel threatened for no reason.

Now I live in very white upstate New York. And I no longer feel weirded out by a bus full of white people. In fact, it’s a daily part of my life.

It’s changing the way I perceive the world. How could it not?

Painful Truths

The current demonstrations and unrest give me hope.

It’s a good thing to stand up against injustice. Hopefully it will prompt systemic change.

But we also need hearts to change. My heart. And your heart. And many, many more.

I’ve never used a racial slur. In fact, hearing some words physically turns my stomach. I’ve believe every person is valuable.

But I’ve made stupid comments that my friends who are people of color have found insensitive (it’s the extrovert’s curse to say stuff before thinking about it). I’ve felt surprised by things I should not have felt surprised by. And particularly since I’ve moved to upstate New York, I’ve found it easy to simply accept the benefits of my white privilege.

In Philadelphia, I saw the benefits of being white every day.

Neighborhood store owners with giant signs on the door telling all customers to leave their bags at the counter told me, “Oh no, not you Miss.”

I’ve come home from work to find two of the nicest young men on the block handcuffed on my stairs for just hanging out and talking. As a teenager, I used to break into under-construction houses with my mostly white friends and never once thought I’d get anything but a warning if someone called the cops.

And I remember finding out that the police detained the wrong man for breaking into our house. The prosecuting attorney didn’t want to disrupt our schedule so he told us we didn’t have to attend the trial. The police had all the evidence they needed without us.

Unfortunately, the arrested man gave the police his brother’s name. It was his brother they rounded up for trial, twice. And if my husband and I had taken time off work to go to the trial, we could have told them they had the wrong guy and saved some innocent man a lot of grief.

Yep, I was dumb.

I have to work at being smarter. And if you’re white, so do you.

Dr. Martin Luther King quote.

Today I live in a city that is mostly white. And the privileges I receive for being white are like water to a fish. They surround me all the time and I have to work to notice it.

We have to create a groundswell where white people admit our racism and see our racial privilege. Because training police officers to think twice before they shoot isn’t enough.

We all need to face the racist environment we’ve created in this country and the part every white person plays in keeping it going. If you don’t know you have a problem, you can’t solve it.

Why I Went Personal

Did you know that even members of the KKK tell reporters they’re not racists?

Everyone, even racial supremacists, knows racism is wrong. That’s why no one is willing to be called one.

Racist graffiti under a bridge.

I could have linked to studies where white people find black faces more threatening. But I decided to keep it personal and share from my heart what I’ve learned from bully dogs and bikinis.

White people who care about racial equality need to step up and face the truth about our own implicit racism. We need to make it easier for people who say “I’m not racist” to look into their hearts and see how attitudes they don’t even know they have are affecting them.

Because racism is more than just using racial slurs. It’s saying “boys will be boys” about your neighbor’s son who gets into trouble while telling folks that a black man shot by the police shouldn’t have done bad stuff if he didn’t want to get shot.

And it’s hoping you’ll get a warning when a traffic cop pulls you over for speeding without caring that a black man in the same situation is hoping he won’t get arrested or shot.

If I can admit on a dog blog that despite everything I know, bully dogs scare me a little more than other dogs, maybe there’s hope yet. And if I can make other painful confessions about racism, maybe you can too.

Perhaps if every white American starts to realize that racism is affecting us without our realizing it, the same way beauty magazines make us feel ugly despite knowing they’re stupid, we can make things better.

I know we have to.

Because if we don’t all feel safe, no one is safe.

photo credits: (don’t shoot) Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via photopin cc, (pit bull)Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious via photopin,(beauty magazines) dicharry via photopin cc,(Uncle Sam) JoeInSouthernCA via photopin cc, (Philadelphia) sashafatcat via photopin cc, (Dr. King quote) philozopher via photopin cc,(racist graffiti) Patrick Feller via photopin cc. To learn more about the photographers, click the images.

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  1. I love you Pamela. You have a way of writing the things I would like to say but can never seem to express in the right way. THIS is what I have been trying to express for weeks now. Yes. This IS A WHITE PERSON ISSUE. This is not a black issue. When we make it a black issue, we push it off to the side and say “not my concern” because we are not black. It’s too easy to brush it aside and pretend it is not our problem because it does not affect us.

    I confess that I actually looked sideways at a big, burly black gentleman last night as he walked on the sidewalk alongside my car last night. I actually thought about locking the doors. Me! I am supposed to be enlightened. I am aware that I have racist tendencies because I am white and because of where and how I grew up. But that thought still crept into my head! It disturbed me greatly. I thought about it all night long.

    This is a white person problem. I hope by accepting it, we can start to change it. Thank you for writing this.

    • If you are locking your door simply because a black person walks by – this is racism.

      If you are locking your door because it is nighttime, you are a female by yourself, their is a large man (regardless of race) walking past, you are in a deserted area…etc.. – this is called being proactive, something we teach in women’s self defense classes. Maintaining awareness of ones surroundings, and not being a victim. It’s what is called listening to your instincts and gut feeling so that you are not harmed by an attacker or threat.

      • True. Being completely honest here, I suspect it was a little of both. And that is what bothers me, safety is always on my mind as a single woman, but to realize racism probably played a part is painful and disturbing.

  2. When I say “enlightened”, I mean that I know I have racist tendencies and try very hard to fight them. That is why I was so shocked at myself last night.

    • Coming back to explain your word choice demonstrates so well how hard conversations about race are.

      After hitting publish, I also worried that my last sentence could be read as menacing. Words matter. And using them well is a constant struggle.

  3. For some of us the tendency to be fearful comes from experience. I live in a very large, diverse city. The crimes that have been against me have all been by people of color. My handbag was snatched out of my hand and I was shoved against a car by a black teenage boy. My pocket was picked in Bloomingdales by a black girl of around 12. Her mother was near by training her. My gold necklace was ripped from my neck by a black 20 something. For months when a black man walked by me, my hands shot up to my chest out of fear of being hurt. The ADA told me it was normal. My elderly mother had her gold chain ripped from her neck.

    Unfortunately, while the men were caught, in each of the cases the judge dismissed them and told the men if they ever saw me again they should stay away. I’m sure that really helped their next victims.

    So right or wrong, I am afraid in certain situations.

    • It takes a lot of courage to admit to being afraid. And also to working so that we don’t allow bad experiences with a few to change our relationships with others.

      I also have been a crime victim several times, including coming home to find people in my home. And my husband has been held up at gunpoint more than once (he used to drive a cab).

      But because my Philadelphia neighborhood was not at all diverse (it was nearly all African American) my positive interactions far outweighed my negative ones.

      Yes, it was a black man who harassed me so severely on the trolley that I decided to get off early to make it less risky. But it was also 4 other black men who saw my problem and who surrounded the person threatening me and prevented him from getting off when I did.

      And it was also a black man who stole something off my porch about an hour after I moved in. But it was also my black neighbor who chased him three blocks even though he hadn’t even met me yet.

      I have dozens of similar stories.

      When we live in crowded cities with lots of crime, we have the potential for risk and to be frightened. But we also have great potential for grace and friendship with a very diverse group of people.

      Thanks so much for commenting on thist post.

  4. I grew up and lived in the Northeast suburbs for forty plus years. Same irrational fears about “them” (fill in the blank) vs us. Then I moved to Texas. Lived in the country (of course). Same old attitude.
    Then out of financial necessity I moved to San Antonio. Close to the downtown but still in a nice area. Had three bus stops near my home. So I explored. Guess what? I had my eyes opened. A large portion of the community is current or retired military. The families who have called San Antonio home for generations had the border cross them. What I found was a community who shared a love of God and family. And most amazing was I was the minority.
    The most interesting eye opener for me was when my daughter applied to UTSA. The section which asks race had white Hispanic or non white Hispanic for choices. It had never occurred to me that a person could be both white and Hispanic. Then I realized that the Spanish settlers where no different than the British, French, etc who came from Europe. I started looking and accepting people for who they are, not where they came from or looked like.
    The downside is I eventually moved back East. Same old negative attitudes. Only now I notice when others are being jerks. I always assume people are good unless proven otherwise. Even dogs.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story Patricia. I love your honesty and your openness. And I bet your daughter has really benefited from the lessons you have taught her.

  5. I stumbled onto this blog entry by accident today and am grateful that I did. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I can’t agree that I am racist just because of my skin color. I treat everyone I meet equally regardless of sexual orientation, race, skin color, country of origin, or language. I have friends who are from all over the world – we hosted exchange students growing up. I also have friends of different race’s, sexual orientations, and religions.

    I do judge people based on their actions. You say that “But it’s white people who need to change.” No, it’s everyone who needs to change. Poor communities (regardless of race) need to teach their children not to steal, get into fights, do drugs, and to be respectful of adults including law enforcement officers.
    Charles Barkley said,” We never discuss race in this country until something bad happens, and even then it usually reflects a tribe mentality.” I believe he is right and it’s sad.
    Everyone tends to go to their corners and prepare to defend in light of a incident when really we should all be coming together as a larger community and trying to solve problems before they happen.
    No one should be treated differently just because of skin color. However regardless of your color if you choose to identify with a group like say a gang, and choose to wear gang colors, bandannas, low riding pants, chains, and haul around a bully dog then you will be profiled exactly as you want to be! People will see you and read “danger” which to be fair is the message that these individuals want to send.

    I am constantly bombarded by emails from my college updating us students on campus safety and recent incidents. Almost all of the attacks are done by black males in their 20’s. In a city that is primarily white, with a very large Hispanic and Asian population the statistics are staggering…this is why profiling happens (i’m not saying it’s right).

    The same goes for “pit bull” owners. If you crop your dog’s ears, dress your dog up in a spiked collar, and have a chain link leash then you are not helping with the stereotype of the breed – and not many people will be willing to find out if your dog is in fact friendly. This is the image that thugs want and so thugs seek out the breed which results in the breed being mismanaged and labeled as “dangerous dogs”. Hence many bully advocates dress their dogs up in silly costumes (like the reindeer bully I saw yesterday) to help soften the image and get people to look at them in a different light.

    As the song goes…”Why can’t we be friends?” In the end I wish the world were a better place where we had less violence and more love. In the meantime I will be the best I can, and continue to work hard changing breed stereotypes, and loving people they way dogs do.

    • “Everyone tends to go to their corners and prepare to defend in light of a incident when really we should all be coming together as a larger community and trying to solve problems before they happen.”

      Well said.

      However, one thing I think you’re missing is that poverty, segregation, and other social issues that contribute to crime are also a result of systemic racism. For example, crack cocaine and powder cocaine are both illegal drugs. Powder cocaine has been very popular with white, particularly upper crust people. Crack has been heavily marketed to poor, black people. And yet the penalty for being caught using crack is much heavier than the penalty for snorting blow. And the massive incarceration of black men is having a horrific effect on our country.

      And that based on my experience as a homeowner in a poor, minority neighborhood, most people ARE “teach[ing] their children not to steal, get into fights, do drugs, and to be respectful of adults including law enforcement officers.”

      Personally, when I think of the worst crimes, I think of all the fraudulent lenders and hedge fund investors whose policies led to millions of Americans losing their homes and crippled the world economy. And yet no major lender has yet gone to jail for blatantly illegal acts.

      HSBC executive lenders laundered money for terrorist organizations and not a single person went to jail. I can guarantee their actions have done more to create an international threat than any street criminal. But they have faced no consequences.

      You might find Matt Taibbi’s The Divide an interesting read. It’s not about race per se. It’s about how differently wealthy people who commit crimes are treated than poor people. But there’s a strong correlation to race.

      And finally:

      “In the end I wish the world were a better place where we had less violence and more love. In the meantime I will be the best I can, and continue to work hard changing breed stereotypes, and loving people they way dogs do.”

      Amen. Thank you friend, for being willing to talk about a tough subject.

  7. Great post Pamela – thanks for tackling this subject. I lived a pretty sheltered life – in upstate NY, but have worked hard to shed the naivete that comes with that upbringing. I lived in DC and Manhattan for several years and learned more about the realities others face than I could ever imagine. I can never really live in their shoes, but I can do what I can to eliminate this sometimes apparent and sometimes unseen prejudice. Admitting it exists is a good first step…so many refuse to even admit it – which just perpetuates it.

    • Thank you for your openness and sharing here.

      Speaking from personal experience, I do think it’s easy for decent, kind people to fail to realize that things are pretty bad because they don’t see them on a regular basis.

      Living in one place for a long time can teach us a lot about community. But we have to move around to see how different the world is compared to our own experiences.

  8. WOW! When you “tackle” an issue, you really stir things up! And, personally, I love it!! Unfortunately, until people put aside their egos and work together to find common ground to build on for the good of everyone, nothing will change permanently. The US Congress – both chambers – are proof of that pudding.

    • Thanks, Sue.

      As for Congress, I read something interesting several years ago. Apparently it was common for two hundred years for congresspeople to rent apartments in DC near or with other congresspeople. Until Rick Santorum decided to buy a house in Virginia.

      Then lots of other congress members followed and now you no longer have our representatives living in close proximity to each other. Apparently, just living around someone can make it easier for you to work with them. Even if you disagree.

      Perhaps we could jumpstart our congress if we started assigning them to dorms, like college freshmen. :)

  9. Sometime I worry by trying to not be ‘racist’ we are actually making the situation worse and creating barriers where there need not be any. For example the recent protests in America, would those protests still have taken place had it been a white man unfairly killed (I know the chances may be less, etc etc but go with me on this train of thought) had both these men have been of the same race I don’t think people would have reacted. For example there was a black man at work and I couldn’t remember his name, so I was trying to describe him to my colleagues but I worried that saying he’s the ‘black’ guy I would be thought of badly so I ended up going down a completely different route, which took so much time, and that’s before you go down the route of remembering which is this months politically correct term to use!

    It’s like disability or even feminism – can a guy hold a door open for a woman to walk through or will he be seen as implying she is weak and can’t cope? Do you offer to help someone struggling, or are you implying they are not able? I can’t help but think we have gotten far too carried away with being PC.

    I love this song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RovF1zsDoeM and I can’t help but feel that actually if we all worried less about offending each other we wouldn’t see the barriers and perhaps would get on better.

    • You raise a good point. Sometimes people care more about looking politically correct than actually caring about other people.

      Personally, I feel it’s a big problem in the U.S. that white people can’t recognize the intense pain the black community is feeling. It’s because until the news covers something, well meaning white people don’t see the problem.

      If we didn’t have the protests, would anyone be talking about something that is a major issue in this country? Racial incidents in the U.S. are as common as tea in the U.K. But only a few items get national and international coverage.

      My experience has been unusual in this country. I’ve been the minority. And I’ve only experienced one denigrating comment about my color, ever. But I’ve never known a black person who hasn’t had racial slurs directed as them, no matter where in the country they live.

      Thanks for joining the conversation. It’s hard and confusing. And I always admire people who are willing to engage.