I have been thinking a lot about what I wrote the other day in response to the murder of George Floyd. I have also been reading many other personal testimonies from friends and strangers. It’s got me asking: What does my voice mean in respect to this deeply-entrenched flaw of Americana? What good is it for me to rattle off words of emotion or nostalgia?
I have so much more to say on the topic, specifically to other white people. I don’t know where I left off or where to begin writing again. Nothing I write can truly address the complexity of our failings as a nation; nor can I get at the root problems that allow for these sickening events to repeatedly occur. This post is incomplete. My last post was incomplete. Everything I say will be incomplete.
But I go back to my statement that I am just trying to say something… to keep this conversation on the lips of white people. We can’t just get steamed up for a few weeks about another incident of racially-fueled police brutality and then gradually go back to the comfort of our minivans and book clubs.
White people, this is our problem too – every. single. fucking. day.
Violence against POC at the hands of police and people in power is only once piece of this problem: a symptom, really, of the larger underlying culture of systemic racism and white privilege here in the U.S. (click here for a video explaining systemic racism). Many white people that I know, myself included, are wringing our hands wondering what we can do to show support for BLM and shift the tide of increasing violence towards Black citizens.
I think we can start by turning those fingers we are pointing at police and politicians back towards ourselves: Looking inward at how growing up in a society fueled by systemic racism has influenced our core beliefs towards POC. How may YOU as a white person have contributed to this ongoing disparity in our country? (no matter how passively or unconsciously) This problem has got to become personal to ALL OF US, regardless of the amount of melanin in our skin.
I read the viral Facebook post by Shola MRichards describing how when he walks in his own neighborhood he always brings his young daughter and fluffy dog:
“I would be scared to death to take these walks without my girls and my dog. In fact, in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will).
Sure, some of you may read that and think that I’m being melodramatic or that I’m “playing the race card” (I still have no clue what the hell means), but this is my reality.
When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner taking a break from the joylessness of crisis homeschooling.
But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.”https://www.facebook.com/shola.richards.7/posts/10163797079620220
And we “nonracist” white people say to ourselves, “Oh that’s horrible! I know there are so many racist people out there who would pass judgment on this nice black man. Not me, though. I never judge someone based on skin color.”
Yeah, ok. Let’s hope so.
But I’ve also seen the Amy Cooper video (using race to threaten and keep white privilege intact) where she is caught on camera threatening to call the police on a black man on the jogging path when he asks her to leash her dog. And I’ve seen videos of black men describing their hobbies and passions (surprising, perhaps, to white people? relieving? refreshing that we have so many commonalities?), pleading that white people have the care to know them “before you call the cops.”
The thing is, we all make snap judgements based on appearance, and skin color is a very obvious part of someone’s first impression. (Quick assessments aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as any woman who has gone jogging or walked home alone knows – you have to gauge if the hooded figure approaching on the empty path is enough of a threat to change course or not.) We all do it in some form or another. The ask I’m making is to be honest with ourselves about our pre-formed stereotypes, even if they are pushed-down remnants from a childhood of Cosby Shows and Boyz in the Hood. I’m asking that we shake them out in the light of today’s world.
Racism in our country is so ingrained, and presumptions are so instilled in our subconscious, that most well-meaning white people are unaware, if not defensive, of their role in the perpetuation of the collective social mindset that allows these events to keep happening. It’s not enough to “have a black friend at work,” “listen to Beyonce,” “have once dated a black guy/girl,” or “be a teacher to black students”. To say you are “colorblind” is at best naïve, and at worst, an arrogant lie. We (white people who consider themselves to be “nonracist”) need to dig deep and drag out some ugly underlying beliefs/assumptions/fears in order to actually start being a force for change in this country. It’s hard. No one wants to admit that they have bias, especially based on skin color.
I think it’s more important than ever for white people to be brave enough to stop denying that we (however well-meaning and “racially woke” we think we are) have been influenced by – and contributed to – the systemic racism in the United States. I believe that white people need to, at the very least, acknowledge our buried internal biases, bring them out in the light, and examine them. Hopefully we can then begin to understand where they came from and eventually dismantle them.
When I first saw a picture of George Floyd’s face I felt the split-second swish of internal bias. Despite years of teaching in schools of black and brown faces, having black friends, black boyfriends and black colleagues, the stereotype that was subliminally ever-present as I grew up in white America is still buried in there somewhere. I wish it weren’t; I wish I could say that I have no preconceived assumptions about anyone based on appearance, but that would be denial for the sake of my own pride – and that won’t help change anything.
Here’s the thing: white people are conditioned to view black men a certain way (and black women, for that matter). Media, movies, music, even the history taught in our schools, paints a picture of “thug” for white people to fall back on when confronted with a black male face. “Nonracist” white people like to deny its existence, yet if you were raised in America, this image was most likely fed to you from birth. (Check out this article on the implications of the word ‘thug’ and other commonly-used phrases with roots in racism.)
I have learned about this unwelcome feeling. Our nation is so divided by race and class that in many areas of the country we seldom have opportunities to know each other beyond superficial interactions. I grew up in a predominately white suburb of Chicago, just 20 miles from the predominantly black inner city neighborhood where I would eventually teach. They were different worlds.
I mentioned in my previous post that when I first stood in front of my classroom of all black students, I felt afraid. I assume that most teachers feel some amount of fear on their first day in a classroom, but I will admit that mine was also related to race. I was the minority for the first time in my life. How would my black students receive me as their teacher? Would they be mean to me? Would they respect me? Would they hate me because I’m white?
I spoke frankly about our racial differences with some of my students during that first year. They had made assumptions about me as well. “You’re not like most white people” was a phrase I heard often during my teaching career. “What does that mean?” I would ask. Usually they shrugged, unable to put their stereotype into words. I understand in a way, because how could I have explained my preconceived notions of who my black students were before I had gotten to know them?
That weird clenching feeling of internal bias faded as I spent more time in the black community, both at work and socially. Or perhaps I learned to recognize it for what it was – a remnant of something pushed upon me by a society built on white supremacy – and send it away when it surfaced.
So back to George Floyd’s face: following that first swish of stale bias (acknowledging it allows me to release it and move past it), I immediately felt the weight of despair as I thought of friends I know and my beloved students, now grown, walking through the world as criminally-black as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. I wanted to reach through space and time and scream “STOP!” I feel helpless and angry, as so many of us do.
So why does our society teach white people to fear or condemn black men? Ugh, the answers to that question are so complex and sickening. But, white people, we CAN work to change that. And it starts with personal honesty.
“Nonracist” white people, start looking around to find the overt and subliminal messages and call them out. Point them out to others. Squash them. Flip them. Start looking inside yourself to find the implicit bias hiding there. Become aware of your own subconscious thoughts, words and actions. Reframe them. Talk about them in order to change them.
White people, we have to start within if we want to change our country’s pattern of condoned oppression.