Truth and discomfort or why we must talk race

“Hey! Using the internet is appropriating white culture! I hope you don’t plan on using electricity, automobiles, or computers during your conference because whites invented all that, you know. Also, don’t plan on eating, because the chances that white farmers made the food is pretty high.” – Comment left on BGIM Facebook page

“Just pointing out how ridiculous it is dividing people by race. You enjoy a prosperous and healthy life thanks to the inventions of white men. You are welcome.”- Comment left on BGIM Facebook page

“What is it you want from the whites?” – Comment left on the BGIM Facebook page

For the past several months, I have been part of a group working to bring a regional version of the White Privilege Conference to the New England area. I am happy to announce that the White Privilege Symposium will be happening October 14-15 at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. It’s been a lot of work and will continue to be, but that isn’t really what this post is about.

A few nights ago, the committee which includes my friend and colleague, author Debby Irving, went live with the symposium registration and I decided to share it across my online networks. Incidentally, Debby and I shared across our networks at the same time and, well, an interesting thing happened. I found myself hit with a slew of questionable comments, some of which I shared at the beginning of this post, and these were the ones that, while infuriating, weren’t the ones that I just deleted and later blocked the users. I peeked in on Debby’s posting and didn’t see anything like what I was receiving (note, it’s the holiday weekend and I am not calling Debby to ask, since off-time is off time…so if she tells me otherwise and I discover she’s been actively deleting similar or worse comments rather than the more likely notion that she’s not getting the negativity I am, well…I will correct and update this post then). Yet the pushback makes a lot of sense of the larger picture.

For the past several years, we have seen a shift as talk of race and racism has become mainstream, especially in light of numerous well-publicized Black deaths at the hands of white police officers. We have seen the emergence as well of the Black Lives Matter movement and activism and protest groups that are part of it and, to be frank, the realities of life for Black and other non-white people in America is no longer hidden from the masses. It never was, really, but now we have reached the point where racial inequity is becoming harder to ignore. Yet, despite this, a funny thing is starting to happen. A certain level of pushback is happening from a certain segment of White America that feels that they are being harshly treated and even claim they are being discriminated against in this new world order.

Granted, it’s not a new world order that has actually done anything significant to white people. It’s actually a new world order of awareness and truth-speaking that is coming out no matter how many of that upset segment of white America wants it to stop. It is a situation in which more of America is starting to realize that whiteness is more than white people; it is a system that has normalized all things white and made that the de facto standard of what is right and proper and best…and well, that is not fair.

But many white people don’t want fairness. They are comfortable with a status quo that centers them. So, we are seeing the emergence of peak white fragility where any racialized talk for certain white people creates a cascade of intense emotions where defensiveness dominates and thus deflects from the discussions at hand. Dr. Robin DiAngelo wrote a groundbreaking paper that breaks down how white fragility operates but one doesn’t need to read an academic paper to grasp how real white fragility is. One only needs to look at the world around them.

Reverse racism is a fantasy and fabrication created by people unable to connect how the past connects to the present, and still leads to very disparate lives for white people, Black people and other people of color. Power plus privilege are the components that make up racism. Period. Can non-white people be prejudiced? Absolutely. We all pre-judge; it is human nature and something we live and struggle with whether we are aware of it or unaware of it. We are learning through both old work and new work being done how to unearth and understand just how deep implicit bias runs. Yet power and privilege are the foundations of all structures that make up, drive and maintain our society, and those are held overwhelmingly held by white people. It only makes sense if you look at the historical picture. Our culture in the US was created by white people who created the hierarchy that we all now reside in. To acknowledge that we all inherited a very flawed system is not intended to make any individual white person feel bad, yet too often that is what too many white people are hearing today. Instead of being made aware of the flawed system and understanding it needs to be completely reconstructed to be fair, they feel attacked.

This point was made clear recently when actor Jesse Williams, upon receiving a humanitarian award, gave a most passionate speech on race on the BET channel (That’s the Black Entertainment Television cable channel, by the way, which isn’t actually owned by Black people, ironically…The network was founded by a Black man, Robert Johnson, in the 1980s, but in 2003, it was sold to Viacom, which also owns MTV and VH1).

Here is a snippet of William’s words and I encourage you to read the speech in its entirety.

Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.

Now… I got more y’all – yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on 12 year old playing alone in the park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better than it is to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that toEric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Dorian Hunt.

While many were in awe of William’s courage and the passion of this speech, many others are doing what they can to undermine him and discredit him. A conservative white political commentator, Tomi Lahren, stopped short of calling for Williams head on a platter but there’s more going on as well and, at present, there is a Change.Org petition circulating asking for ABC to fire Jesse Williams. The funny thing is there is nothing factually inaccurate in what Jesse Williams said; a paid public servant did essentially do a drive-by on a 12-year-old kid who was just being a preteen kid in a playground.

Historically, this country has treated Black people as second-class citizens and furthermore, while slavery ended in the 1800s, it was replaced by Jim Crow…which only officially ended less than ten years before I was born. Given that I am barely into my mid 40s, that should give us all pause. Yet while many want to think everything is equal and level for Black people and desire for the past to be forgotten, the fact remains that millions who were born and raised under Jim Crow are still very much alive and, truth be told, we are now battling against the rise of Jim Crow 2.0 or  “James Crow” laws which are kinder and gentler in many ways yet still punish Black and Brown bodies at far higher rates and wildly disproportionate rates compared to white bodies.

Here’s just one stark example (and there are so many more): In the 1980s and 1990s, we saw the rise of crack cocaine, and it devastated Black and Brown communities. Instead of mercy and help, addicts were criminalized and whole communities were lost to drugs or the prisons. Now we see the rise of opiates in predominantly white communities and instead of calls for criminalization of addicts, we see calls to assist in the public health crisis. Why are drugs a public health crisis when the users are white but when the users are Black and Brown, it’s a criminal problem? If only Black and Brown communities could have received the mercy that is being extended now.

Yet who we see as human and worthy often depends on seeing them through a racialized lens that offers little or no room for critical thought or historical perspective that would otherwise reveal how racially biased this society is in favor of whiteness and against the things that are farthest from whiteness.

The key to our collective freedom as humans will require the strength to look back and learn from our past so that we can move beyond a system that has taught the dehumanization of Black and Brown bodies. To discount and refuse to hear the truths of millions is simply a new millennium trick to continue old world ways of being.
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1 thought on “Truth and discomfort or why we must talk race”

  1. My goal is to go to at least one of your events this year. Maybe I’ll see you in October.

    I’m glad you ended with Jessie Williams. That was a spectacular speech both in delivery and audience response. (Live and online).

    The quotes at the beginning had me shaking my head, but I am glad you included them. Much needed context.

    That we have to expect and give audience to angry, ignorant backlash against any sort of structural institutional progress is distracting and demeaning. It’s one thing to listen to the concerns & fears, and defend your platform. It is wholly other to be ground zero for threats and anger and ridicule for bringing up the obvious differing point of view.

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