“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in the ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor; you don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car. And I believe that as a nation in the year 2016, we must be firm in making it clear. We will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal-justice system.”
– Bernie Sanders
The 2016 presidential election season is starting to bear a faint resemblance to the 2004 film Crash, a film in which a group of vastly different people find their lives colliding around the issue of race amongst other things. In many ways this election cycle is leading Americans of all hues and stripes on a collision course with race and how we see or don’t see each other. Unfortunately, life is not a film and things won’t be wrapped up neat and tidy within two hours.
One thing that is very clear to me is that racially segregated lives combined with fear can lead people to say and do some really curious things. I’m also vividly reminded that we humans are guided by our fragile egos (myself included) and when the ego takes over, combined with nonstop media messages courtesy of Fox, CNN, MSNBC and Facebook, tensions rise and reason leaves the room.
A few nights ago, Bernie Sanders made several comments during a debate that frankly should give us all pause and not because they were awful or possibly taken out of context as some are suggesting. Rather, because his assertion reveals how white supremacy operates. It “others” people who aren’t white, and in far too many cases it’s unintentional and it’s blind. It often doesn’t know what it doesn’t know because, as I wrote last year, the average white person lives in what I refer to as the silo of whiteness. To be white in America is to operate in a world where you live, love, work and play primarily with people just like you. Overwhelmingly and disproportionately. Sometimes even exclusively. (It should be noted that research shows non-white people are more likely to have racial diversity in their friendships and networks than are white people.)
Even in diverse cities, town and suburbs, we often conduct our personal lives in proximity to people just like us. Yet because of how power is held, this does not operate the same in reverse for people of color. We may live in segregated spaces but power is held by white bodies. It means that often people of color have had an opportunity to observe white people in a way that white people rarely observe people of color. It also means that people of color don’t have as much freedom or ability to interact only with their own race.
This power imbalance leads to beliefs that are often based on half truths, “data” and stereotypes. It makes it easy to equate the plight for racial justice without acknowledging that Black people exist across the economic spectrum and even the most privileged Black person knows that economic privilege provides scant protection at times against racial discrimination and profiling. It also means when Blacks and other people of color speak up and demand parity, we aren’t always heard.
The energy swirling around this year’s presidential candidates has created a vacuum where increasingly people of color are tired of being asked to “go along to get along.” Whether it’s Bernie’s revolution or Hillary’s potential big first. This election season has opened the floodgates to people talking down and insisting that marginalized people must do XYZ lest they are “low information voters.”
While many of us are sharing a common economic plight in this changing world where the middle class has essentially become an upgraded version of yesterday’s working class, we cannot ignore the fact that race matters. Race always matters and the sooner we get comfortable acknowledging that reality and working tirelessly within our communities to change the discourse around racialized realities, the sooner we may get to a place that race is secondary. But we are not there yet. Not even close.
To ask people of color to ignore their racialized existence and experience is a form of racial abuse. Many well-intentioned white people this election season are so focused on what they feel is best that they seem incapable of hearing and stepping back. Rather than beating the drum about what a candidate did 50 years ago, perhaps we would all be better served asking how can we help change that candidate’s narrative so that it works for everyone. Instead of demanding silence that results in business as usual for a certain segment of the American population.
I am often characterized by some as a “race baiter” and while I disagree with that, I do believe in talking about race because I know that talking openly and honestly about race and racism can make a difference. I think that when we see the humanity of everyday people, it allows us to think deeper about race and how it affects our lives. I most certainly have had my own thinking on race expanded by dialogues with people of other races whom I got to know as people not white people or Mexican people or something else but as people.
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