Let’s Talk About Race

I can tell you right now that talking about race as a white people among other white people isn’t a very lively discussion. There is a lot of dead space, often an unspoken denunciation of all racial prejudice or association with racial prejudice, then subject is changed.

When I was a kid, sections of history books were carved out to explain slavery: Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr.’s image might be positioned a page over from Harriet Tubman’s. The subject ended swiftly, because civil rights happened and that was that. No one endorsed racism or slavery, but no one got very passionate about the subject either. Racism, after all, had bookends. It began here and ended here.

The time and place in which I grew up had no Whites Only signs, nothing like that, but it was a suburb and therefore mostly whites only. It seemed as though most white people had little idea what racism looked like outside of those old black-and-white photos. It also wasn’t discussed. I was fortunate enough to have the discussion handed to me as a little kid by my father, whose vocal and enthusiastic racist views were the backdrop of my life. By seven, I was already thinking hard about it. My mother didn’t agree with his opinions, and she was the one to point out that little girls’ dolls at the time were all white. It was a jaw-dropping realization: black kids couldn’t even buy toys that looked like them.

But outside of home no one talked about racism. We had a unit in school, and I suppose there were PBS specials on Martin Luther King. Malcolm X was barely mentioned at all. We knew four or five names and that was it. I was an adult before I learned about Emmett Till and Medgar Evers.

There was a time I thought virulent racism would die with my father’s generation, and that it was mostly confined to dinner tables anyway. It wasn’t until I was in my very-early 20s and in the Navy that I began to get a hint that it was alive and well, even if not as bold as colored-only drinking fountains. If you were black you lived and breathe it. If you were white, particularly a white person exposed mainly to other white people, you had to sort of squint to even begin to detect it. It was like one of those pictures for kids, where you color a blank page and an image gradually appears. Our eyes and hearts weren’t trained to see it. Or talk about it. Or attempt to understand it. All of that made it easy to dismiss.

My experience is definitely not every white person’s, but I have an idea it is not too foreign to most of us. As a white person among mostly-white people, it was easy to decide you weren’t racist. You didn’t have to really look into anything, and the idea that maybe you were racist, just by birthright, fell somewhere between intensely uncomfortable and wholly unthinkable. For those who didn’t identify as racists, the word became a synonym for bad or evil. Therefore, we decided, as nice white people, not to be associated with it.

This experience required no real work. It required no investigation either into yourself or the world. Even if you had the proverbial black friend in these settings, that friend was likely to be working so hard to assimilate to your environment that you didn’t need to find out about hers. You could just decide you weren’t racist.

This has something to do with how I think white people often engaged — or didn’t engage — with the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged several years ago after multiple incidents, in which police killed unarmed black men. Cell phones and social media recorded something that was not new, but which had been easier to hide before every cell phone had a camera. The black community began talking about their experiences again. They took to the streets when not only did more unarmed black Americans got killed, but also police were not convicted or even charged in some cases for the murders. Many white Americans focused instead on the protests they didn’t understand and the police officers killed in alleged association with the movement. For some, it quickly devolved into Us vs. Them, and the conversation of race continued to circle an uninformed and dispassionate drain.

The problem may be that white people are often not talking about race unless someone of color is in the room, and then it’s perfunctory. But if white communities do begin to sincerely discuss race, it is important to find out something about it first. This likely involves talking to and befriending black Americans. It probably involves listening to what black Americans’ experience has been, and what their parents and grandparents’ experiences were, and caring about them. Even more than that, it requires us to be honest with ourselves. That is a tough one for a race that has a long and bloody history of violent racism, but doesn’t feel the slightest bit racist at a cocktail party with your five white best friends. It definitely involves not dismissing out of hand what black Americans have to say. 

Here’s the most excruciating truth we struggle to admit: racism is about us. It never had anything to do with anyone else but us. It impacted others, but did not truly define them. The question is, does it define us?