Several days ago, I had what is best described as a racialized encounter with a white woman who, perhaps feeling emboldened by the ascension of President-elect Trump, thought that walking up to a random Black woman on the street and saying questionable things was a good idea. Later that day, I went home and wrote a post on Facebook about the encounter as a way to blow off steam and let go of my own tension over the exchange. Within hours the post was re-shared enough that at last count there were hundreds of replies; most were kind, but some were not. After sitting in my own feelings, I realized that it is time to write a post about what is and is not racism and why white people benefit from white privilege even if they only have seventy-two cents in the bank.
We as a collective have been talking about racism for some time in this country and, frankly, we should all be tired of talking and ready to move to the action phase. Yet we can’t move anywhere if we have no shared understanding of racism and its impact.
Far too many white people in America lack even a rudimentary understanding of racism and too often create false equivalencies when it comes to race. Often using a tit-for-tat mentality without understanding that America’s foundation was built on divisions that are still playing out in 2016. Racism is a deadly cancer yet unlike breast cancer, we aren’t putting in the work or resources to find the cure. We would rather take two Advil and ignore the festering, pus filled tumor that has eaten through our skin and pray that things will get better.
Racism comes down to two things: power and privilege. Period. In America, power and privilege sit with white people and that was intentional. Honestly, it’s damn near global. Sure, there are Black people and other people of color who hold power and privilege but we don’t have the critical mass or historical legacy and access to power and privilege that white people do. So that means that people of color with a little power and privilege are nothing more than the tokens we hold up to distract ourselves from the larger picture. See Barack Obama, Oprah and the other 52 people of color that come to mind as the examples that are used to prove that no one is being oppressed rather than remember the words of former Attorney General Eric Holder, our first Black U.S. attorney general, who talked at length about his own experiences with racism. Experiences which continued to occur to him even as a high placed public official.
Racism isn’t the mean Black guy or the mean person of color who called you a cracker. It’s rude, sure. It may even hurt your feelings, but that is is not racism. Racism is not on both or all sides. No, racism starts with white people and truth be told, if we want to find the cure, the cure ultimately will lie with white people. Even someone like me, whose life work is dismantling racism, can’t fix this mess. I am the scientist whose own body is riddled with cancer, feverishly working in the lab to find the cure to save my own body before the cancer or in this case racism kills me. This work is to save me and mine and if it helps white folks out, I am glad but I do this work to break the shackles and weights of racism and oppression that threaten my soul.
In some circles of the well-meaning but clueless, conversations about racism and difference are seen as a form of racism, which is really just a tool to deflect and avoid the uncomfortable moments. Look, people of color live in bodies that are often targeted for no other reason than the color of their skin. The data now supports (and has for a long time now) what many people of color have long known instinctively, which is that racialized identity starts early for children of color. We now know that as early as preschool, Black children are treated differently than their white peers, and not in a good way. Speaking to the Black experience specifically, we learn pretty early on that white people are put on elevated steps that our Black bodies are rarely allowed access to.
Talking about racism won’t make you a racist; however, not talking about it can keep you deep in the silo of ignorance and keep you trapped in racist ways of being without you ever even having to use a racial slur. Naming race and difference can go a long way rather than ignoring that we are all bound to a foundation that set us up for abuse and marginalization of people of color.
Over the years, I have opened up more about my own experiences with racism, in part because once I was freed from having to play the good Black woman to stay employed by the good white people (which, let’s be honest, meant placating white folks and not making them feel bad), it allowed me the freedom to be real and raw. Truthfully, many people of color don’t have that freedom since the economic reality is that most of us are employed by white folks who don’t want to hear that shit. So we wear our masks, play our roles and stuff down the indignities that nip at our souls. Yet in our homes and safe spaces that is where we can safely lay down our burdens, whether it is the client who just touched and felt up your hair without consent, the guy in the truck with the confederate flag who called you a nigger, or the flight attendant who didn’t believe you really belonged in first class.
Which brings to me to the reason that this post took form. In recent years as this blog has become more well-read, a common criticism leveled at me is that I am a liar and that I am an attention-seeking wanna-be Al Sharpton and that no one could possibly have several racist encounters in a year. Well, to be honest, racism impacts my life on an almost daily basis and for the sake of my own stability, I pick and choose what to share publicly. Some days, I even pick and choose what to acknowledge to even myself because the full weight of just how deeply embedded racism and white supremacy is in most white people will just destroy me. I informally asked friends of color their experiences with racism and the vast majority shared that they too encounter racism on a regular basis.
Sometimes at the hands of family and loved ones; sometimes strangers or colleagues. But our one commonality is that walking this dusty rock in bodies that are not white makes us vulnerable to attacks that range from microaggressions to covert discrimination to the nasty, virulent racism that makes you fear for your life. If you are reading this with your mouth ajar, I would ask you to look at the people in your life and consider how many deep relationships you have with non-white people. Not your occasional Black drinking buddy or the nice lady in your yoga class. I am talking friendship where you can both sit in the comfortable and uncomfortable equally and still talk the next day. The majority of white Americans don’t have these types of connections with non-white people, which explains why so many cannot grasp racial reality and why even more missed Trump’s dog-whistle comments about the natures and conditions of various non-white people that almost every person of color knew was racially coded language. Trump was never just a carnival barker with bad hair to us. We understood his intentions and his threat to us (and even to white people) and, sadly, now so do many previously “good white folks” with no bad intentions who helped him gain power because they didn’t take him seriously enough from the start, gave him media attention without holding him to the same high standards of other candidates, etc. Kinda funny, by really not funny, how so many people of color sounded the alarm, including yours truly, and very few people listened.
Lastly, I want to share a story. It’s a true story involving my former life partner and current co-parent who is a middle-aged white man. A few weeks ago, he was out running errands with our daughter and it was a rainy day. As he was driving and approaching an intersection, the light turned yellow, rather than braking fast, he stepped on it and just as he went through the intersection, the light turned red. A few seconds later, he saw the lights of a police car behind him and the squawk of the siren, and he knew he was being pulled over. He pulled over and the officer approached the driver’s side window. The officer asked him why he went through the red and asked for the usual license and registration. The officer’s initial attitude was neither friendly nor unfriendly; he was just doing his job. After a few minutes later, the officer returns in a decidedly more upbeat mood and tells him that since he has a perfect driving record, there is no reason to mess it up now, they make small talk and the co-parent drives on understanding in that moment, his maleness and his whiteness has just given him a ticket to ride…literally…without a moving violation. As he mentioned to me in telling this story, he had serious doubts that, had he been a Black man (or had I been in the car with him), that the situation would have played out like that. The officer might very well have still been professional and polite, but would have been more likely to say, “I understand why you did it, but I still have to give you a ticket.” And *poof* goes the perfect driving record. Meaning a history is created. But my co-parent’s whiteness allows the traffic violation to disappear and thus, the next time he gets pulled over, he still has that “perfect record” on paper and no baggage to steer a police officer to more punitive behavior.
White privilege is many things but it, quite simply, often just being given the benefit of the doubt (by police, potential employers, landlords, etc.) when many times little or none should be given.
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