Do I have your attention? Good. Because it is way past time we all paid attention.
In fact it’s a couple hundred years past time to call out racism, to own ‘racist.’ Because since the first slave was hauled unwillingly across the Atlantic we, and by we I mean white people, have been killing people of color. Men, women, and children but overwhelmingly men. The reasons behind it are many and complex and there has been great research done, and dissertations written. If you want to understand better why POC are routinely under-prescribed pain medication or perhaps why police tend to shoot black men so many times there is research behind that. You can read some of it here and here. And you can do your own research. (Google will help you dig deep into many things.) That isn’t my job. I don’t really care right now if you understand the why because frankly we don’t have time for that.
What I need you to get right now, my fellow whites, is that racism doesn’t have anything to do with how you feel. Racism (like other “isms”) is a system, it is the way our society is arranged that gives power and preference to some and pushes others to the margins. You don’t opt in, and you cannot opt out, either. Just because you aren’t rich, or “powerful” does not mean that as white you do not have privilege in a racist system (you do). Also: there is no such thing as “reverse racism” because those on the margins do not have the power to enact a systematic ‘ism.’ (Someone being granted the same privileges you have always enjoyed is not in fact an “ism” against you, nor persecution. It’s justice, get over it.)
Our society is racist. Every single one of us who was raised within this society is too. “But,” you say, “Barefootrev, I’ve got black friends!” Doesn’t matter, changes nothing. You’re still racist.
Here’s what we’ve got to get over. We’ve got to get over the idea that racists are dudes in white sheets and pointy hats burning crosses. Those people are racist, but mostly they’re just power mad insecure assholes; and the rest of us? Also racist. We’ve convinced ourselves that racists are some sort of far right boogeymen who live in the South and are so caricatured as to be safely other than us. But it isn’t true. In fact my beloved home state, the one where my teachers taught us racism was a Southern problem, and was solved in the 60s, has some of the worst racism in the US. (Take a look at the map in that link, it’s eye opening.)
Bishop Greg Rickel (Episcopal Diocese of Olympia) said something to a clergy gathering that I think all of America needs to hear. He stood up in front of us and said, “for those of you who are new and don’t know me, I’m Greg, and I’m a recovering racist.”
A light went on in my brain. You don’t chose to be an alcoholic, it choses you. Through genetics or a host of other factors, but once it’s got its claws in you it never lets go. You don’t ever get over being an alcoholic, but you can be in recovery (which is almost never a straight or easy road).
Here in the United States we are swimming in, drinking, and breathing racism. We can no more see it or grasp its depth than a fish can describe the ocean. It is the very fabric of our country, built on the backs of people our white ancestors owned. And like an alcoholic we can’t just quit whenever we want to. No one is exempt, no one gets to opt out. Here’s the really sick and twisted thing: not even people of color. The racist system in which they are raised? It affects people of color every bit as much as deeply as it does those of us who are white. Imagine just what that might do to you for a moment. And none of us have wanted to talk about it. Nice people don’t talk about it.
Racism doesn’t have to mean burning a cross or refusing to rent to someone. When I was young there was a big brouhaha about ‘ebonics,’ even my own parents (who are solidly good people) shook their heads and commented that if those people ever wanted good paying real professional jobs they would need to learn to speak proper English, you know, without a ‘black’ accent. Proper English of course was white Hollywood English. But you know how you spot the racism? No one said the man from Appalachia needed to learn to speak “proper English,” or the white folks from Georgia, the Irishman, or someone from Lake Woebegone, or even the white Texans with their drawl. No one commented on the white Bostonian accent and how it wasn’t ‘professional.’ Some of those are nearly their own dialect, but it was only the black American accent that was picked out as problematic, outside the norm. Because of course it was, if white is the unacknowledged norm.
That’s racism. When white becomes normative, assumed, baseline.
Racism means a white woman breaks down or gets into an accident and the police stop and help her, call her ma’am, give her a ride to her work in the front seat of their patrol car (that was me). Racism means an unarmed black couple breaks down and the police shoot one of them dead in front of their child. Racism means a black man is killed and protesters shut down a highway; and are told they should protest politely, quietly, peacefully. So a black ball player sits out the national anthem; and that pisses off sports fans more than the death he is protesting. If you are a person of color in this country you cannot win.
And not winning all too often has meant dying. The thing we should be shocked by is not that so many unarmed black men and women have been killed by police this year or last year, but that so many have been killed every year our country has existed and the majority of white people never knew or cared. Until it was televised, until it couldn’t be hidden anymore.
America, we are sick. We suffer from chronic, and perhaps terminal, racism. We can continue to ignore it and fail utterly to be what we say we are, a shining beacon of hope, the city on the hill, the best country in the world. Or we can do the brave thing. We can admit we’ve hit bottom, that we seem to be utterly powerless against this monster our ancestors raised and nurtured. We can admit that we are all racist, against our will or not, and we can begin the hard work of recovery. We can demand that work of one another.
I am a racist. I was raised that way, I was raised to be afraid of Detroit and Flint, ostensibly because of crime, but really because they were black cities. I was raised to judge how “good” a neighborhood was, unconsciously, by how white its residents were. The culture in which I swim installed in my subconscious a little jolt of anxiety when a black man walks toward me and all of the gentle, amazing, smart, funny black men I know now can’t uninstalled it, it’s hard wired. I cannot remove the wiring of my past, but I can become aware of it, I can know when the training my culture installed is kicking in and I can chose to make a different choice. I can work at being a recovering racist.
That is what it is going to take, from all of us, to make this right.
And we have to start now, this instant. We have to start with those of us who have the luxury of not watching the news, of turning off the horror, of marching in a protest and then going back to our lives. It isn’t up to our brothers and sisters of color to solve this, because they and their ancestors weren’t the ones that built it, we did. It isn’t their job to present a solution, or be our examples, or educate us; that’s ours.
And that needs to happen now. Because our brothers and sisters are literally dying.
(Featured image credit: “Yo Mama’s Pieta,” a photo by Renee Cox, as seen in “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People,” a film by Thomas Allen Harris.)