“The chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.”– The Atlantic
A family lost a son, a community rages and a country confronts the hard-to-ignore reality that we are a nation divided. The sins of the past still live with us and in spite of our best efforts of the past 50 years, we have never moved on despite a brief and fanciful dream that we were beyond race.
Race matters. Race always matters and that hard-to-swallow truth prevents us from moving on. As the nation watched Ferguson, Missouri, unravel in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s premature death at the hands of law enforcement, it was clear that how one viewed the unraveling had everything to do with one’s lived experiences. In fact whether or not one even viewed the events had a great deal to do with the color of one’s skin or willingness to see the pain of others as they would see their own pain.
Several days ago a report from the Pew Research Center that was released showed just how stark the divide is between Blacks and Whites in this country. At a time when we are becoming a more racially mixed country, old tensions between Blacks and Whites are still strong. Yet to those of us who study race or in my case work in the anti-racism field, none of this is news. White supremacy is the undergirding which this country was founded on; racism was inextricably woven into the fabric of this nation and constructed into the founding principles of this country. Whiteness is the default setting that we operate on and anyone who is not white learns that lesson early on. Even preschool age kids understand race and understand that whiteness is valued and everyone else is a distant second. There is a reason that non-white children prefer the white dolls over the ones who look like them; none of this is coincidental.
We don’t typically ask the victims of violent crimes to heal themselves and solve the crime on their own, but in America we expect Black people to do just this. The history of Blacks that is taught in our schools and often talked about publicly has whitewashed the horror that impacted Blacks. The average white American because they have so little contact with people unlike themselves truly believes that Black Americans were freed in 1865 and that life was smooth sailing until a few hiccups in the 1950’s and 60’s when Martin Luther King Jr came along. So there is a persistent undercurrent of belief that that plight of Blacks is somehow the fault of Blacks and Blacks alone and that white hands are clean. Nothing could be further from the truth. In families like mine, people worked the land for white landowners under an arrangement called sharecropping while living under Jim Crow laws which lasted well into the 1960’s. My father picked cotton as a child well into the early 1960’s on white owned land while being raised under Jim Crow which determined which school he could attend and what water fountain he could drink at. Integration hit my father’s life about 8 years before I was born. Considering that I am in my early 40’s that isn’t terribly long ago. Yet in recent days my inbox has been filled with angry rantings from those who feel that I am a whiner and race baiter but these same people are lacking in their own knowledge of all of American history.
Considering the sheer ugliness of America’s history when it comes to Black and Native Americans, it’s no wonder that we as a nation whitewash history and gloss over the pain of those who suffered mightily in this nation’s quest for success. In many ways it is no surprise that the social and professional networks of White Americans are 91% White (while those of non-whites are far more diverse). The very setup of how we live does not lend itself to making cross cultural connections at a soul level and unfair funding of our public services often creates a situation where even well intentioned and open whites eventually end up in spaces where everyone is just like them. Often this is under the guise of needing good schools, etc for the kids. For Blacks like myself who do end up living in white spaces, the psychic burden of always being an ambassador for Blackness often proves too much.
Is all lost on the racial front? No, but to move beyond requires more than Black and Brown bodies doing all the heavy lifting, it actually requires white people to move beyond the the moments of shame and defensiveness that is too often a part of racial discussions. It requires a willingness to acknowledge that for some of us privilege is bestowed upon us through no efforts of our own. It requires a willingness to learn just how American culture privileges whiteness at every turn and a willingness and desire to dismantle and change that narrative that enslaves us all.
When we actively work to dismantle the ugly foundation that we all stand on, it becomes easier to see the systemic inequities and notice the patterns of abuse and brutalization that certain bodies in this country see on a regular basis. When we are actively dismantling the ugliness we no longer “other” the pain of certain communities but recognize that a lost child matters to us all. Dismantling the system means we no longer hear that quiet voice of doubt that says a teenager somehow earned his killing but we become as passionate for that Black or Brown child as we would be for our own child. We may not all change our life path to become an anti-racist but we can recognize the harm and danger of homogeneity.
Until we as a collective reach that place, we will continue to live this half life of sorts where we think we are all free when in fact none of us are free. The choice is ours but do we have the heart and the strength to go beyond? That is the question.
Just a quick note for Mainers and those near Maine, on September 9th, white anti-racism activist and author Debby Irving and I will be giving a talk on cross racial discussions at the Portland Public Library, FMI click here.