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A Letter to White People: I Know You're Not Racist, But ...

A recent article on PolicyMic in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict sparked my interest, not because of the contents of the article itself, but because of the comments that followed. The young white woman in the video that the article linked to claimed that middle-class whites who take up the “I am Trayvon Martin” rallying cry are, in fact, deluding themselves if they believe the cultural education that they have received doesn't teach fear of black people. Most of the white commenters responded angrily, denouncing the video and claiming that they were never taught to be racist. I could not adequately respond in the comments so I decided to write a letter and publish it here.

Dear White People of America,

I know you weren’t taught to be racists. Your parents were/are good people who worked hard and never hated anyone. You went to decent schools and have lived in diverse places. You publicly espouse tolerance for everyone. I know you weren’t taught to be racists. But somehow many of you have absorbed, if not racist attitudes, then certainly prejudiced ones.

Though I know that it will be viewed as such in many quarters, I don’t intend this opening to be inflammatory. What I want is to spark a real conversation around race, privilege, and perception, a conversation that has been sorely lacking in America and which is not happening in any meaningful way even in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. Whites, blacks, and other minorities keep talking past each other regarding race. If we are to prevent the tragic deaths of more children, then this has to stop.

America’s current issue with race is not the problem of old. The KKK doesn’t roam the streets looking for people to lynch anymore. Nooses no longer adorn trees, dangling “strange fruit” as a warning to black people to stay in their place. Governors don’t stand in school house doors proclaiming the never-ending reign of segregation. Our current problems are deeper and much harder to talk about. They are as deep as our thoughts, and few alive today were taught by any authority figure in our formative years to actively hate. But somehow, we have absorbed the lesson that we should actively fear.

That’s what George Zimmerman did. He actively feared a young black kid walking home from the store in the dark. Why? Zimmerman’s father was a judge, someone dedicated to upholding a colorblind law. I seriously doubt that he taught his soon that black people were a threat. So who did? Why did George Zimmerman, and why do so many of you, so actively distrust and fear black youth that laws that could justify the killing of such youth are allowed?

How did this irrational fear creep into our national culture and indoctrinate us? I have no real answers to that question. I suspect that it has something to do with media portrayals of black people coupled with the realities of minority poverty. Shows that portray white criminals tend to do so in a sort of fantasy of storytelling. Who is likely to meet an Italian mobster in their everyday life? Conversely, shows like The Wire and Oz purport to portray a “slice of life” in black neighborhoods. We are much more likely to meet people like those characters, black men with a violent streak. Hip-hop has, for years, been one-dimensionally viewed as violent and disruptive. And who makes hip-hop? Black males. The murder statistics out of Chicago are appalling and splashed all over the news. Black kids are shown as dropouts and dope dealers, gang-bangers and thugs. With so many violent and negative portrayals, it’s no wonder that many of you unconsciously think of black men as a threat.

Here is a painful admission. I, a black man, harbor much of this fear as well. I too have been indoctrinated to fear black males. My heart rate quickens and I begin to look for possible avenues of escape when I see an unknown black man approaching on the street, especially if he is wearing “thug clothes.” I roll up my windows when a black person pulls up next to me in a jacked-up Cadillac blasting rap.

If I can own up to the fear, white people, I think you should too. Let’s all stop hiding behind the “I’m not a racist” excuse and admit that we do fear the Other, especially if the Other is a black male. Let’s look at what we consume in the media and how our culture shapes us and admit that it just might be affecting how we think about minority males.

White people, I know you weren’t taught to be racist. But if the effects are the same — if innocent kids can be gunned down and the killers can get off and even be defended by whites as “being within their rights,” if you can still pass laws that disenfranchise and impoverish minorities without protest, if you can carry on as if everything is OK when black people are dying in the streets of our cities — then how am I to tell the difference? I’ll take you at your word that you’re not racist and weren’t taught to be so. But until you can admit that many of you harbor an irrational fear of black men, then we can't really begin the process of making all of us safer.

Sincerely,

A Black Man

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