It’s time. White people need to have a discussion about race in America. What brown and black people have been saying for years has largely fallen on deaf ears. But in the past few weeks, the Paula Deen scandal and death of Trayvon Martin have once again shoved race in the face of white America. And though many try, it’s hard to look away. The president’s speech on Friday was simple yet poignant, underlining a major point: Racism is still rampant in this country and no non-white person is immune to it – not even the president.
For too long, white people have looked the other way at racist police policies like Stop and Frisk that unfairly target innocent people based on the color of their skin. We have ignored the plight of young African Americans growing up in underprivileged neighborhoods and refused to examine the causes of the rampant crime that infest them while prescribing their victims harsher punishments. We have insisted on our innocence and washed our hands of any responsibility to our own detriment. Racism, to white America, doesn’t exist until someone makes us look at it. Even then we try hard to look away.
The root of the problem is white guilt. Not the kind of guilt that is useful in examining and resolving, but the kind of guilt that makes people deny any responsibility and position themselves defensively as competing victims; counterattacking with absurd impossibilities like “reverse racism.”
I, like many white people, was raised with a sense of white victimhood. As far as my family was concerned, racism was a thing of an antebellum past that died with slavery and Jim Crowe. Emphasis was always placed on all the “good white people” like Abraham Lincoln and white abolitionists who fought to free the “poor black people.” I never used nor heard the N-word spoken in my home yet the seeds of subtle racial prejudice had already been sown unbeknownst to me.
I’ll never forget the time my brother and I were making fun of our Jewish friend by pointing to a picture in a Christian children’s book of a black child standing next to Jesus along with other children of various ethnicities and laughing as we designated her the “dark skin” child. I’ll never forget the time I told my friend’s black friend that racism was over and he should just “get over it.” I’ll never forget his anger and my feeling of rightness and clarity when in reality I hadn’t a clue. Like all white Americans, I had never walked in a black person’s shoes or lived their experiences. But the real problem was I had never tried.
And that’s exactly what white America needs to do right now: Try.
Try to listen and imagine what it’s like to be followed around in stores by employees that always assume you’re stealing because of your skin color. Try to imagine growing up in a society where your race isn’t the default for movie characters, presidents, and historical figures. Try to imagine being around women – in an elevator, on a bus, in the street – and watching as their fear of you manifest. Try to imagine being followed by cops or constantly pulled over for absolutely nothing. Try to imagine always being aware of your skin color; not having the luxury to maintain “colorblindness.” Try to imagine why the Trayvon Martin case wounded and enraged so many within the black community.
White people, here’s the truth: Racism still exists and your refusal to acknowledge it doesn’t make it go away. The “get over it” attitude has got to go. If America really wants to “get over” racism, we must first recognize its existence. You cannot tackle the elephant in the room by ignoring its looming presence. Listen to people of color and their experiences. Look into the racist history of the criminal justice system that continues today and ask the tough questions. Try to see color; be painfully aware of your whiteness and the effects it has on your daily life and in interactions with those around you. Realize that you will never know what it’s like to truly be a minority; that a person of color’s best comeback to a heinous slur like the N-word is the laughable “honky” or “cracka.”
And please, stop being so damn defensive (I’m looking at you Paula Deen). No one is suggesting that you don a white hood and burn popsicle-stick crosses on your barbecue at night. They are suggesting that there exists stubborn lingering remnants of the violent racial oppression that occurred less than a century ago in this country that are subtle and yet in some ways just as damaging. They are suggesting, not that all white people are racists, but that all white people suffer from subtle yet powerful and often subconscious racial prejudices and racist ideas ingrained in them from an early age by authorities such as the media and family.
If white people in America can take a hard look at their own country and their role, both passive and active, that they play in the current color-acute system and acknowledge the benefits derived from such a system, we can began to heal the wounds inflicted by our ancestors and re-opened by injustices like the death of young Mr. Martin.