If you are white, like I am, and if you are someone who has become more aware that there is a problem with systemic racism in this country, then you have been going through some growing pains like I have been. People of color already know that our nation has been built on racism and has racist systems running through its veins. But, for some of us who are white, it’s ben a shocking time as we are confronted with the fact that, no: racism is not dead in the U.S. It is alive and well and now, has become downright acceptable. How did this happen, we wonder? We cry out with protest and surprise, because it feels as if we’ve been wakened from our cozy fantastic dreams where all is well — and it feels like the wake-up call has been accomplished with a bucket of ice water straight to the face.
Many of us have taken to social media, flooding it with shocked and frantic ideas of how we can change the terrible tidal wave that has hit the nation. We have just now discovered what black people and others who face injustice have known for a long time — racism is real and it sucks.
Personally, I admit that I lived in a fantasy for most of my life. Yes, I hated racism and was appalled by horrible jokes that I heard people tell, and nasty KKK attacks on people who didn’t deserve to be hurt or terrified. But, I am a lover of fantasy, and I actively seek to hide my head in the sand when confronted with realities that I don’t like. I am not proud of this, but, honestly, it is the truth.
I will never forget when I lived in South Carolina and the lessons I learned there about the realities of racism and how disconnected I was from the truth. Two incidents stand out to me that I now look back at and shake my head over.
In the first, I, as a civilian working with the Army I had once served as a soldier, wrote an editorial in the paper condemning what I saw as the glorification of hate groups on talk shows. I was a journalist, but I was incredibly naive at how my published work would be received in this place. My editorial was blistering and insulting to skinheads and the others who had been invited to appear on television to “raise awareness.” This was soon after Geraldo Rivera had his nose broken by a chair thrown after he had invited white supremacists AND civil rights leaders onto his show. It had been bedlam, and Geraldo seemed to eat it up. My point, in the editorial was that I didn’t believe these shows were beneficial in exposing these groups for what they were because none of their representatives ever really answered questions honestly. My view was that everything we needed to know about them was already known (that they were all idiots.) I was just plain stupid in writing this and having it published. I may have even been just as guilty as Geraldo now that I think about it. This editorial was me, venting in public. And, it was not smart. All the grief I got over it, however, was minor compared to what others suffered for broadcasting similar sentiments. A telephonic threat was it. It could have been much worse.
Another incident that shines like a beacon onto my white oblivion was when I helped take a soldier I worked with to the car repair shop to pick up his car. I loved this guy and his family so very much. And, he had his newborn infant daughter with him, so when he went inside to pay and get his keys, I was privileged to hold this darling tiny girl. Before he went inside, however, he startled me and warned, “don’t let anyone see you holding my baby.” I laughed and said, “Why?” He said, “Just trust me.” I did as he said, but, I wondered how anyone could object to me holding this lovely child? Maybe they shouldn’t object, but the fact is, there are plenty who would have objected, and who still do. I was naive, but he was not. He knew more than I ever could understand.
I am still fighting my own ignorance when it comes to race and society, and it is a never-ending journey. I know that in our white ideal world, many of us want to believe it has ended already because we have had a black president. But, it hasn’t ended. In fact, in many ways, it has gotten worse.
I know it’s disturbing to think that it is still alive and well. It’s even more disturbing to realize that we have done little to oppose it and in fact, have, by our ignorant bliss, helped it grow and gain power. White people who refuse to face the truth and do something about it have let people suffer great harm as they become victims of a system that we benefit from. I am one of those white people. I must admit it in order to move ahead.
Think about this.
When a police officer stops us, we don’t really worry if we’re going to make it through the encounter alive. We even think that the reason for this is that we’re polite and really, that’s all anyone has to do to get along well with law enforcement. But, I know white people who are anything but polite to police and they have never been attacked by them.
Yet, I also know of black folks who have been polite and compliant who have been attacked and even killed by police. But, when we are white and want to remain comfortable in our society, we cling to the idea that police are always heroic, and anyone stopped by an officer is probably guilty of something deserving full armed response.
If we were even half awake, we’d be able to see that this just isn’t true. It’s blatantly obvious that there is something wrong, and yet, so many of us just refuse to consider that the system is rigged against people of color. It is a messed up reality that makes us squirm if we face it (and our role in it), but it destroys lives, so to ignore it is to be complicit.
We don’t like to admit that our nation was built on the backs of slaves. I never owned a slave, but, like it or not, I and my kind benefit from their forced sacrifices even today. We love to applaud soldiers who were killed as having given their lives for their country, and rightly so. But, where is the acknowledgement that slaves gave all to this nation even if it was against their will? Many grandchildren of slaves have served this country in battle, by the way. They were noble enough to volunteer to serve a nation that oppressed them, and their ancestors so horribly. Why do we fail to recognize this? Why do we focus on every negative stereotype we can about people of color and completely ignore all that they have given to this nation?
Racism didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation, by the way. It is only the start of a very ugly, real racist path that people of color have been forced to walk all these many generations. For every stride that black folks have made (many of which we wrongly assume we benevolently gave to them), white systems push back and make them pay. Black civil rights leaders and workers (some white too) gave their lives to gain rights that we want to take credit for giving them. The indignities and persecution of the black race (and Native Americans, Latinos, etc.) have suffered are so many that I cannot thoroughly cover them all here. Anyone who really cares can find these things out themselves with minimal effort (think Google).
My point is that I am starting to wake up and I understand the urge to just go back to sleep. I understand that it’s easier, and more comfortable to just keep going on as if everything is fine. Sure, we suffer too (and that fact comes up so often as a defense against the idea of white privilege), but, how many of us fear the police? (And, before you argue that all anyone has to do is comply, I can give you so many examples from my own life that this isn’t true. Once again, think about any white people you know who aren’t polite to police. I can think of some. None of them has been attacked for it. Or Google it, if you really want to be honest and know the truth.) How many of us white citizens of the U.S. know someone who is doing time (and is white) for a minor offense? (Again, Google and you will find out all about unfair sentencing in regards to race, profiling, etc.) If the police want to arrest you for something, they can always justify it, by the way. (And if they want you convicted? It isn’t that hard.)
We have to admit, if we are honest and actually take time to find out – that we are beneficiaries of an elevated social status due to being white. I mean, ask yourself. Would you want to be black in this society? Would you be willing to change places with a person of color? Of course you wouldn’t.
I hope you realize that slavery was just the start of black injustice in this country. Because even after slavery was “ended” we had Jim Crow laws classifying black folks as lesser individuals who shouldn’t dare to taint the spaces white folks inhabited. We have had lynchings, where mobs of angry whites decided which people of color deserved to die horribly for perceived crimes (or more accurately, demanding civil rights or violating Jim Crow laws.) White people were allowed to beat or kill black people without any fear of prosecution. White mobs would often start an evening of hate with a lynching and then move on to swarm over black neighborhoods, destroying property and even lives. People were actually burned alive. But, hey, at least they weren’t slaves, right?
People classified as negro, or black, weren’t even allowed to vote until the 20th century and even then, white powers that be (supported by white citizens) did everything they could to prevent black voting. This is still happening today, but this fact can easily be dismissed if you are white and want to avoid facing it or claim ignorance to how political candidates and parties can, and have, manipulated black votes to nullify them. If you want to know truth, it isn’t hard to find it, but waking up is so hard, isn’t it? Think about how hard it is to be a person of color, in a group of folks that must fight hard for every right, only to have it pushed back again. People died so that those of their race could vote, but, that right is so easily denied when we pretend as if there is nothing wrong. All is a level playing field now, right? I mean, we have let them have their black president, haven’t we?
Waking up is hard because we don’t want to let go of power. We don’t want to admit that we should never feel we are “giving” black people anything, because we haven’t. On so many levels this thinking is wrong. But, we still think of ourselves as lords and masters, benevolently “giving” these lesser people rights out of the goodness of our hearts. But, these are people and citizens who DESERVE every right that anyone has here. And, for another, every right anyone of color has was won at great, great price by activists and people that our race has killed, imprisoned, criminalized, fought against, and hated and yet we STILL want to deny them equality. Wake up to that, because it is truth. And, it should hurt.
There are so many layers and layers of racism on which our society rests. It takes a lot of work to uncover them and it is painful to admit the truth and to face the facts that your failure to recognize the problem has led to the great harm that has been done to people of color in our nation. We are not innocent just because we have not burned a cross or intentionally discriminated against anyone.
Yet, the point of waking up to our roles in perpetuating the system of racism that hurts people is not so we will hang our heads and carry unbearable guilt. For too long, history in this nation has been all about US. But, we need to wake up to the fact that our guilt (or our lack of right action) should not be the focus here, because that only perpetuates our belief (and our society’s structure) that everything is about US white people.
How about laying aside our preoccupation with ourselves altogether? How about focusing, instead, on what is happening to the other? That is where change and good can come from. We need to wake up that the situation is dire for people of color in our country. People are dying from this poison of racism every day, whether in body, or in spirit. It has to stop and we can stop it. We have the power to make a change if we only open our eyes and close our mouths for awhile.
It is an uncomfortable journey because we are not used to humbling ourselves and letting someone else have the last word. We don’t want to give up control. And, really, ending racism doesn’t seem to have that much benefit for us, does it? We are just fine with things the way they are. There is nothing to be alarmed about if you are white, is there? Maybe we worry about terrorists or our pocket books and bank accounts. But, we don’t really worry that our kids will be killed by police when they go out to play, or take a train to work, or drive in the wrong neighborhood. Not really. So why should we wake up and why should we care?
I cannot answer that for you. But, for me, it is important for many reasons. First, there are people I dearly love who do worry about their kids, with plenty of reason (and the reason isn’t that their kids are thugs either). There are kids I love who I worry about. They are good kids. But, what if the wrong police officer sees them out and gets the wrong idea about them based on their skin color? What if they find it easy to target them because they don’t know them and they have made assumptions that they shouldn’t have made because they have been raised in this nation with implicit bias? I cannot imagine the pain of that, but sadly, I can imagine the reality of it. That chills my bones. Secondly, I don’t think I could live with myself knowing that I could be a party to willfully discriminating against people based on skin. (I was going to say as superficial as skin tone, but then, I thought – no, because in reality, different skin tones are so beautiful and are part of who a person is, so it is not superficial.) I don’t want to be looked back on as someone like the slave owners of old, or the German people who ignored the Holocaust. And, I feel as if that is what future generations will see when they look back at us and wonder why we sat back and let people be executed by police (no jury trial for them!) who are supposed to represent justice, or why we let a school to prison pipeline be set up for black lives (where we once again put them in slave labor situations). I cannot really live with myself, or contemplate one day facing eternal judgment, if I just turned away and say nothing when black boys and girls are taught that they aren’t beautiful, smart, articulate or capable because they aren’t white. I just cannot go back to sleep, though I would never say I am fully awake.
I still have a lot to learn, and I make mistakes. I have been raised privileged and biased, whether I want to be or not so that is bound to affect my vision. So, there will be missteps and there will be times when I fail to see. There may even be times when I look away. But, in the end, I pray, that I will keep going forward to stand with those who are oppressed. Jesus stood with the least. How can I refuse to do so, even if it is uncomfortable?
My comfort is not the most important thing in the world after all. Justice — that is important. That is worth waking up for. It is far less comfortable to put myself in the shoes of those who suffer racism every day. They are the ones who feel the real pain. My pain is nothing in comparison. Besides, I think the real joy is in working for truth and freedom for all. What about you? Can you see the light, can you hear the cries for help, and will you get up from your pillow and do something?