October 28, 2014 by Julia
For many white Americans, racism in our country is categorized in the big mental folder of Major World Problems I Can’t Deal With Because of My Own Life Challenges, which to be fair, is a mental folder we all have to use at times if we don’t want to go crazy.
I keep coming back to the problem of racism, though, in large part because of the amazing online writing that is available on such subjects as social justice, white privilege, and racial reconciliation. (I’ve listed many of these articles at the bottom of this post.) These issues draw me to them naturally, as someone with a love for social studies, a fascination with the unifying, universal themes of humanity, and a strong desire for inclusive, diverse, liberated community. (Sorry for all of the adjectives.)
But every time I try to write or speak about race relations between white and black people in America, I am forced to step away, humbled. I keep thinking that I don’t know enough. I can’t trust myself, as a white woman raised in an average mid-Atlantic suburban town with the full benefit of white privilege, to speak in any meaningful way about racism.
It’s easy to declare racism bad. No one of a sane, ethical mind would disagree with you. The hard part is tackling all of the specific ways that racism has seeped into our country’s culture since it was founded on the backs of slaves. The mass recovery from such evil is not simple, even with laws in place that are supposed to give everyone equal rights.
Our nation is raw in the wake of recent killings of young, innocent black people, and the subsequent ugliness of the “controversy” – quotation marks intended. This kind of “controversy” looks a whole lot like a nation’s blatant denial of obvious wrongdoing, in retrospect. We are not so far removed from the days when it was controversial for women to want the vote, or for black Americans to sit in the front of the bus. A young black man in Ferguson was shot down in the middle of the street, unarmed and in broad daylight, with his hands in the air. Controversy?
Wrong has been done, intentional or not, whether it was by association or by remaining silent or through our ancestors or by our own actions – and as we teach our children, we should say sorry, even if the hurt was caused by accident. That is what respect and care for another human being demands. We don’t walk away and pretend like nothing happened after spilling a glass of wine on a woman’s dress, because that would be inexcusably rude. If we say something racist, even if we had the best of intentions, we need to educate ourselves on why it was wrong, and say sorry. Not debate why it actually wasn’t your fault. That’s like saying to the lady with the wine-stained dress: “Well, you probably shouldn’t have worn white to a party when you knew there would be red wine here. You brought this onto yourself.” Or there’s the “I’m not a racist, but…” line, which is like saying “I usually don’t spill red wine on people, but I just had to follow this crazy impulse through – you don’t mind, right?” Which is pretty terrible and not at all an apology.
Yeah, it’s hard not to be defensive, in the current climate of horror at racism (which is, of course, an entirely appropriate response to racism). No one wants to be that guy who was called out for making a bad joke in class. It is very, very uncool to be racist – at least in the parts of America I am most familiar with. So I understand that white people want to avoid becoming social pariahs, and sometimes that fear of acting racist eclipses the better reasons for not being racist. And it’s not fun, as a white person, to watch a movie like 12 Years a Slave and realize that your ancestors may have been like the villains of the (true) story.
But let’s just agree right now that for the majority of African-Americans, it is much MORE painful to watch 12 Years a Slave, and to face the likelihood that one’s own great-great-great grandparents suffered torture, rape, degradation and hopelessness.
All Americans still suffer the consequences of slavery and institutionalized racism, but in some forums white suffering is weighed on the same scale as black suffering. Too often the fear or discomfort of white people threatens to drown out the cries of mothers whose black sons have been gunned down by police.
There are countless inequities that separate races in America, but this is one we can all feel down to our bones, if we allow ourselves the pain of empathy. Think of the parents who have to tell their children how careful they must be, because of injustice. How do you explain to a young man that the men and women who are supposed to protect him might also shoot him for no good reason, because Americans are afraid of black men? How do you tell a young man or child this without breaking something inside of him? If I thought police officers were more likely to shoot my son because of his skin color, that is a heartbreak and fury I would carry around with me always.
So we need to get over ourselves when it comes to advocating for social justice, white people. Yeah, it sucks that we are uncomfortable and trying not to be defensive and we don’t know what to say when confronted with hurt and angry black people, and we may even feel paralyzed to the point that it feels like we are surrounded by landmines and can’t quite get the right words out without stepping on one and blowing up our best intentions. It sucks, but it’s nothing – NOTHING – compared to the African-American experience of racism.
I’ve spent some time trying to become more comfortable on the subject, unsuccessfully. Now I’m realizing that maybe we should be uncomfortable, because that is what American history calls for, even if we weren’t alive during the worst periods of slavery and oppression. Maybe uncomfortable is the best, most human, most sensitive, most respectful response in the wake of such incredible injustice.
Without question, we have not achieved social equality yet. And I want to figure out what my role in this is, despite the fact that I feel bumbling and awkward. Because I think that a lot of white people feel as awkward as I do, and are too afraid to engage in reconciliation with the black community, for fear of offending someone the moment they let their guards down. But avoidance is getting us nowhere. So join me, or at least bear with me, people of all races, as I move forward. I want to reach out to a better America for all of my fellow citizens, even if it means I will make embarrassing mistakes that I have to apologize for. I will apologize, and I will learn, but I will not give up on this process.
For me, the process looks like this:
1. Continuing to educate myself on issues of segregation, black history, institutionalized racism, and the culture of racism.
2. A real examination of my own heart and motivations, with humility and a willingness to accept criticism from trusted sources (especially within the black community).
3. Refusal to let questionable remarks or actions slide. Courage to challenge the things that don’t sit right, whether they are within myself or the people around me.
4. A dedication to talking about race with my children.
5. Open myself to building more honest, personal relationships with non-white people. Be friendly. Stop assuming they don’t want to talk to a white woman. Avoid making assumptions at all, because every individual is unique and must be taken on his or her own terms, regardless of their race, gender or orientation.
Here are some of the articles and clips that have inspired me over the past year:
Justice then Reconciliation by Austin Channing Brown
For Weary Friends by Austin Channing Brown
Different Rules Apply by Matt Zoller Seitz
White Privilege, And What We’re Supposed to Do About It at Rage Against the Minivan
White Privilege Does Not Mean What You Think it Means at Rage Against the Minivan
An Open Letter to Privileged People Who Play Devil’s Advocate by Juliana at Feministing
The racial parenting divide: What Adrian Peterson Reveals about black vs. white parenting by Brittney Cooper for Salon
Black Tears by Austin Channing Brown