On March 3, 1999, my high school newspaper, the Forest Hill Spirit, published a column of mine in which I presented an alternative point of view critical of Black History Month to a majority black school. It invoked perhaps the best of what has become the idealistic, conservative viewpoint on race relations, and was recognized with an award for Best Column at the high school journalism conference at USM that year. It felt great to win an award. It failed, though, to rally any sort of momentum toward racial reconciliation, for one of the same reasons we still fail at solving problems today: that for all its ability to dish out personal experience in a divided world, it sorely lacked the empathetic perspective that is necessary for us to ultimately understand one another.
I return to my column, 15 years older, perhaps wiser, to examine how experience has changed me- grown me. What was my attitude toward race in the past, and how can I address it better now? As I read over my old column again, I hear one drumbeat loud and clear that has been the underlying theme to white folks’ talking points on race for years: Can we please stop talking about this?
So it got me thinking. What is it that makes white people so reluctant to really discuss race problems in America? I’m not talking about random acts of violence or sound bytes from a rich, out-of-touch white person that ends up discussed on The View. White people are quick to shame that stuff, for the most part. I’m talking about deep, institutionalized disparities that are so ingrained into American life that they don’t even make the news. Why is it that white people will not touch that stuff?
It’s because white people hate talking about institutional racism. I mean hate hate hate talking about it. And based on my experience, my reflections, my truth, here’s why.
Reason #1: Many of us can’t imagine what it’s like to be black, and most of us just don’t want to.
A giraffe and a lion were hanging out one day drinking beers. The giraffe turned to the lion and said “Hey Lion, d’you know Steve?”
“Which Steve?” the Lion replied.
“You know, Steve. That really mellow, cool guy. Lives by the river. He’s always picking strawberries and collecting firewood by the river.” said the Giraffe.
“Nah…I don’t know that Steve. I know a Steve that lives by the river who’s always screaming and running away from me, leaving piles of strawberries by the fire.” said the Lion. – unfinished joke by Louis C.K.
Who you are, what you are, changes the way the world acts toward you. It is not always fun to think about, but it is undoubtedly true. One evening after work, my wife and I had a long conversation about an article on sexual harassment that she’d shared on Facebook. I scoffed at some of the assertions of what men supposedly say to women walking by themselves in public, until she related to me very similar things that men have actually said to her when she’s not with me. Hearing the experiences of a loved one from her own mouth broadened my perspective in a way that no amount of reading could. I was confronted face-to-face with a world she inhabits which I never see, and will never see. But that’s just the thing- everyone is living in a world the rest of us will never experience.
I’m not trying to promote a relativist worldview or anything, but the fact is, we white people cannot really imagine what it is like to live in America as a black person. And they really do have a different experience of the whole thing. One of the most embarrassing white responses to the Ferguson protests has been disbelief from liberals that this happens in America. This has been answered by black voices all over the place as tone deafness, or at the very least denial. From way back to Langston Hughes’ “America never was America to me” to this very day, the America that white people live in has not been the America of everyone else, and we just don’t understand what to do about it. And if you think fair is fair and the American Dream is the same for everyone in this country, put down some money on the best, hardworking black kindergartener in any classroom in Detroit and I’ll equal your bet on the laziest white kid in Connecticut. Give it 20 years and we’ll see who’s the top earner.
Some people think that sounds a little bit racist. They’re probably white. Because most black people already know that my wager has nothing to do with skin. It has everything to do with what American experience you get to have. I was ignorant of other American experiences when I wrote in my 1999 column, entitled “Black history month important, but exclusive”:
It seems to me that for the entire month of February, blacks and whites alike are constantly reminded that we are two separate races, not to be confused with one another. February has become the annual line drawn in the sand that signals the end of months of integration and sends each black or white person back to his or her side of that line.
What I didn’t understand at the time (and what many of us still don’t realize) was that for some people, that “dividing line” in February exists year round in other forms. Many of us just get loud and indignant if you remind us of that.
Reason #2: We don’t know what racism actually is.
We’re against racism. Openly, firmly, positively. We just think racism is some variation of saying bad things about black people, or doing something that favors a white person just because he’s white. What we should say is that we’re against obvious racism. The trouble is, we know that we’re all against obvious racism, so if one of us does something that’s just sort of unclear or could be interpreted as insensitive, we think he or she probably didn’t mean it and we shouldn’t rush to assume it was racist in nature. Because if you do something that is classified as racist (adj.), that means you’re a racist (n.), and if you’re a racist, that means you hate black people, right?
That’s the way we think about racism.
Racism was this scourge that we fought off as a country in the 60’s, and we eliminated it once and for all, like we cleaned up the whole country. So if you find any on you today, that means you probably created it yourself, or you’ve been hanging out in some dirty places. – White people brains
It doesn’t even occur to us that the country we live in has real, physical consequences of historical racism or subconscious racism going on that we’d rather not discuss. Because if we did, we might have to admit that that all counts as racism, too.
We talk about the movement of people to the suburbs with each other passively, as if it’s just a simple fact of life now. Sometimes we’ll even say the term as if it’s a regrettable reality: “oh, you know, white flight and all,” all the while completely ignoring its obvious, appalling racist undertones.
Or we’ll connect race with socioeconomic status, and mention that as the real motivation for discriminatory choices. Violent crime rates and incarceration for drug possession just happens to be disproportionately higher in the black community. Now now- it would be obviously racist to simply assume that black people are more prone to violence or to selling drugs. So, the way we sleep easy at night is by assuming that these crime rates have something to do with poor people and lack of opportunity. We pretty much just ignore the implication that if we stop thinking about it right there, we’re essentially saying we think it’s A-OK for black people to be poorer on average, disproportionately put in prison for drugs we also do at similar rates, and to be given less opportunity to succeed in this country. That it’s okay for the system to be rigged against black kids.
Nothing to see here, no reason to get involved.
That. Is. Racism. Too.
Reason #3: We think we’re already on the Good Guys team.
We think we’re the good guys. We think we’re the whites that black people like hanging out with, because we don’t tell black jokes. We hold doors open for black women. We have black friends that we can name! We talk about how our shoulders hurt too, girl, and oh man, you’re right. It is too hot today! See? Not racist at all! We are so totally not the bad white people we think of when we think of racist white people.
My 1999 column presented a list of conservative gripes perhaps all too typical of a post-integration white southern sophomore looking for a way to stick out from the flock by ruffling a few feathers. I was jaded by the predictability of the all-too-politically-correct annual handling of Black History Month in the heart of the New South. I was also armed with the high-minded moral spotlessness that can only be found in the mind of a white Mississippian who could never have even imagined the stench of segregation that had infested the streets of his hometown just years before he’d been born. And so I set out to explain to the minorities just how they could improve the racial divide, complete with the dubious, oxymoronic lead-in now used at the onset of all conservative racial observations: “I am not a racist.”
Here’s one excerpt from my 1999 column, in which I described a video we watched in history class during Black History Month:
In the name of education I am shown video after video of white bigots pounding poor blacks until they reek with blood and sweat. The awful beatings pull me lower and lower into my seat until for a brief second, I am actually ashamed of my white skin. … That’s when I stop watching for a moment, and I get my head back on straight. I remember the fact that I am not a Confederate slimeball. I am not racist. In fact, I have grown up entirely without segregation.
This all-too-typical reaction to historical fact is borne out of insecurity. Confronting history fills white people with guilt that gets expressed in different ways. It doesn’t even register with some of us that that’s what it is. Young Jamie here reacts defensively, as many white people still do today. He wants desperately to be thought of as a good guy, and he finds it difficult to discuss the deeper, institutional legacy of historical racism without feeling some blame for it, though no one has actually accused him of anything.
All of us “well-intentioned” white people consider ourselves less racist than our ancestors were, so every single one of us feels like he’s doing a good job. And when we actually talk about race in our country, and its legacy in the Mississippi we’ve inherited, we dig down to get rid of the racism in all of us. But we white people cannot escape the truth that as far down into our selves as we can dig, as much as we try to root out all the racist intentions, pluck out the insensitive words, and tear away any barriers to diversity that our grandparents left deep down inside us, we cannot defeat the demon of privilege. None of us can deny that even if every single one of us is less racist than his grandfather, we all still benefit from the racism of the past.
Reason #4: We don’t know how to address privilege, and that shames us.
One piece of perspective I have gained in the fifteen years since my 1999 column has come through a better understanding of what many people go through in this country with regard to living conditions, the drug war, and relationships with the police. For example, many young black men are taught from birth to always speak politely to police and to obey their commands regardless of guilt, lest a misunderstanding occur, and they meet an unfortunate end. I was never taught this. I grew up near some fairly rough neighborhoods in Jackson, and was out with friends late many nights, but for some reason, the elementary school assumption that Officer Friendly was there to protect me seemed to be enough for my survival.
I was sitting in traffic one evening during the week of the Ferguson protests, listening to a radio piece on race relations, watching the silhouette officer backlit in blue lights waving cars by, and it dawned on me: I have never really feared the police. I remember once, as an undergrad at Mississippi State- being creeped out by a biker cop riding a little too fast in my direction. And skipping on into McComas Hall, I remarked to my professor- a tough, sage theater shop man/playwright with jeans and a pipe- that the police scare me sometimes. “At your age,” he said, “that’s probably a healthy disposition to have.”
And that was the first time it ever really occurred to me that the police might be out to get me, even if I hadn’t done anything. In college. And now, sitting in traffic in Southaven, wearing the tie and salary job ID badge I had on, I realized I could get out of my car, point threateningly at this cop, and curse him out with relatively no consequence. Heck- I could even run up to him and bump chests with him, and the worst that would happen to me is to find my head between his knee and the pavement as he clacks cuffs on me. I do not fear being killed by a police officer, even at my worst. Even at his worst. The police are there to serve and protect me, not the other way around. And yet the same sentiment spoken by a young black man in a hood and jeans would sound radical and provocative.
I’m not saying all white people have privilege above all black people. But to ignore the reality of your own advantages is a form of prejudice itself.
Reason #5: We don’t have to talk about race.
…So we don’t. Not much, anyway.
For some reason, there’s no urgent need to rock the boat if you’re the one who’s sitting in it with dry shoes. We may be the nicest people in the world, but many of us simply don’t need to address inequality in order to make it in America. We have other advantages.
I was standing outside my classroom door one day with students milling around on the way to first period, when the substitute teacher across the hall- a shorter black woman my mother’s age with a close-cut afro and distinguished-looking eyeglass frames graciously reached out her hand to meet me. “Hi! I’m D—– [Smith],” she said, her first name lost in the din of lockers slamming and student conversations carrying on. I thought she had said Donna, but I wasn’t sure. “Oh! So good to meet you!” I said, “What did you say your first name was, again?”
“Doctor,” she said plainly. As I laughed and gave a nervous “Ohhh…sorry…” she smiled and shook her head. “I use it in academic circles,” she added.
As I thought about her response, how off-putting and arrogant it seemed to me, she seemed to fit some sort of pre-fabricated “assertive intellectual black female” stereotype that I had picked up along the way. Alongside that, I considered my own aspirations for a doctoral degree, and how I would handle discussing it with others. I had always thought about just holding the degree, and if I should still be teaching when it happens, to just insist on “James” and to let people discover the distinction as they got to know me. Maybe I’d accept being called Dr. Comans. Or maybe not. I actually recently explained my education history to someone as having “started out in Starkville, and recently gone back to get another degree at Ole Miss,” subconsciously going completely out of my way to mask having three degrees.
This- I started to realize- is a type of thinking only a white male could have. A white male, or someone whose situation in America is really working out for him or her. Because for this substitute teacher, Dr. [Smith], however she ended up substitute teaching, whatever her actual goals were, as qualified and as skilled as I saw she was with the students and with classroom management, wearing her qualifications on her sleeve was not simply an option as it is for me. It’s a necessity for promoting self image. She wasn’t being arrogant. She just has to make it known how qualified she is.
Discussing advantages is something that the privileged and successful do not feel the need to do, because usually they do not feel that their advantages are the reason why they become successful. It’s called self attribution fallacy. It’s also why successful black people who say it’s time to stop discussing race get invited for a Fox News interview within 15 minutes. No one wants to think that luck helped them become successful. They believe it was the hard work they put in. And yet most hard workers do not become successful. It’s a sad fact in 21st Century America, but the deck of opportunity is impossibly stacked against the poor and underprivileged, who happen to be mostly minorities. That’s why they’re always wearing their achievements on their sleeves, and using bullhorns to keep the race discussion going.
White folks, it’s time we tried to understand America through other people’s eyes. It’s time we joined in the conversation ourselves, actively, whether the conversation makes us uncomfortable or not. Most of all, it’s time we listened.