I grew up believing that everyone is equal, and that equality is impermeable. It’s protected. A given. Your sexual orientation, skin color, country of origin, family situation, gender, how much money your parents have… none of those things make you any better or worse than anyone else, or affect your chances of success. You have complete control of your destiny, and America is an amazing place because of that.
And that attitude has served me incredibly well. I’m a confident, passionate and curious person who generally doesn’t find anything off-limits. If I see an opportunity, I take it. And there are many open to me. People are nice to me. I trust law enforcement to protect me. I feel safe almost all the time. I’m white.
And while I know, know that all human beings are equal, and retain a fundamental right to be treated equally, I now understand that we aren’t all playing the same game, on the same field, with the same umps. My chances of hitting a home run are fundamentally better than many others’ chances (even if I totally stink at baseball, as it were).
The depth of racial inequality in this country I truly love is something I’m still learning about, and a conversation I want to participate in. I want to make this better. I want to be a white ally and understand what that means. I want to hear about and recognize what’s wrong, and help dismantle systematic racism.
This is a sensitive topic for much of white America. I recently read a post by John Metta about why – as a black man – he doesn’t talk about race with white people, because he often finds it futile. You should read the whole thing, but here are a couple of points I found salient:
“White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals… They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.”
This is an important point, because it digs into why white people tend to find accusations of racism so offensive. If you are thinking as an individual instead of as one member of a much larger society – one that incidentally has enjoyed a historic position of power – the question of whether or not systematic racism is real and pervasive becomes personal. And from a personal point of view, it’s combatable.
Simply, if I am not racist, racism doesn’t exist.
“A white person smoking pot is a “Hippie” and a Black person doing it is a “criminal.”
When you begin even a cursory study into how language is used in concert with race, there’s an undeniable, if sometimes subtle, difference between how black and white subjects are treated. White killers are shooters, black killers are killers. And while I have to believe the majority of language discrepancies are unintentional, un-intention is kind of the point. If you don’t have to think about those nuances, it’s because the system benefits you already.
“White people are good as a whole, and only act badly as individuals.”
This insight really gets to me, because I’m starting to notice it more and more. As a different angle on the group/individual point above, it means that when one or two or 100 black people do something wrong, it reinforces that the entire community is bad, with individual good exceptions (likely, the people you know and love). But when one or two or 100 white people do something wrong, as a media/social community we’re embarrassed and devastated, but only briefly. The bad seeds are the exceptions. As individuals, they just had bad upbringings, or bad brain chemistry. It’s not a race of bad people.
And while it’s intellectually obvious that a handful of people could never represent a full community, we only arrive there when we’re thinking with intention. Given a snap input, we make snap judgments, and slowly but surely reinforce the very attitudes we abhor.
It can be hard to push past the sense that maybe, just maybe, there’s more you or I could be doing than being open-minded, “colorblind,” equality-loving people. Blindness is a cop-out for not doing the observational work. And it hasn’t proven itself to be a very good solution so far.
To wrap this up, I’m not trying to chide the white people in my life who are compassionate and intelligent, and find the racism discussion frustrating or uncomfortable. I get it. But it doesn’t hurt to pay closer attention and be open to new conclusions – in fact, it’s a necessity. If more of us ask questions, listen harder and work to fix the system, we CAN end racism. We just have to believe it exists.