Friday, February 3, 2017

B133. Racism: It's Time To Change the Way We Talk about It (and the Way We Listen)

It’s time to change the way we talk about race, and the way we listen. Most of us are not as far apart as we think, but our language and interpretations are.

Dear Black Friends,

None of us likes to be negatively labeled. As a white person, calling me a racist is not the best strategy to opening communication. Expect me to get defensive.  In the understanding of most of white America, racists are those who blatantly seek to harm the black community. Racists are the KKK. Mainstream white America does not perceive itself at racist, nor as haters.

Sure, they see themselves as superior, although many have never thought about it enough to agree. Sure, if they walk into a space filled with black people, they will be uncomfortable and probably turn and leave. And sure, there are racial fears and attitudes that penetrate white America to its very soul, but most have never consciously questioned or acknowledged such fears.

Surprising to maybe the majority of black Americans, who have lived their lives in a white world surrounded by white people, most white Americans, especially rural white Americans, have never had any close relationship with a black person. They will often jump defensively to refute this by sharing about their black work friend, or a beloved black housekeeper, but it’s unlikely that either the work friend or the housekeeper has ever been invited into their home socially, or on an outing just as friends without the whole work gang, or that the white person has been inside the black friend's home.

White people have lived their lives largely in isolation of black people without ever really thinking about it or consciously planning it that way. Most rarely think about black people except when the news covers stories of racially charged incidents which  incite fear and divisiveness. They do not understand, except that they defensively do not see themselves as racists or haters, and the reactions sound like some of these:

“I don’t have any slaves. Why am I treated like a racist just because I’m white?
When are we going to have a white people day? / a white people parade?”
“I’m tired of being accused of being a racist just because I’m white.”

And as long as they are called racists and haters, it is unlikely the white community will ever be able to hear the real issues. Name-calling does not invite meaningful dialogue and communication.

Dear White Friends,

It is time for us to stop being defensive. The race problem is very real, and with roots that stretch to our country’s beginning, it is far more complex than just about us as individuals. Racism is ingrained in our culture and has been handed down unintentionally from one generation to the next for centuries. The attitudes and fears are such a part of us that we usually don’t recognize or see them.

And this blinds us from being able to see the big picture, that racism is systemic, built into the very structures and systems that frame our society. Yes, we can ignore it and pretend the black community is just making up a problem that’s not real, or we can rise above our personal defensiveness, and try to really understand.

There’s been much attention the past few years, for example, to racism in our criminal justice system. 1 in every 15 American black men is incarcerated right now. Compare that to 1 in every 106 white men. Black men have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated at some time in their life.*

Again, the white community tends to make this about individuals rather than about the system, or it wants to simplify the solution. “Just obey the law,” we say, and we’re finished with the discussion. Unless it’s our white son who runs up against the law. Or another “nice white boy.” He’s from a good family and deserves another chance.

But the young black man, no, he’s from a black family. Hmmm.

“Black people need to teach their children how to behave,” we say. “Then they won’t get into trouble and end up in prison.” Yes, perhaps they would be just as obedient to their parents’ warnings as our white teenagers are to ours. Hmmm again.

White friends, have you ever had “the talk” with your children? No, not about sex. About racism. About always being respectful to white folks. Yes sir, no sir. It’s a talk about staying alive. Do you know what it’s like to worry every time your child walks outside or gets in the car that you might never see him alive again? Ask a black parent.

White men, do you know what it’s like to see fear in women’s eyes just because you are meeting them on the sidewalk? Or to be followed around inside a store when you need to pick something up on the way home from work? Ask a black person.

Yes, we are tired of hearing about racism all the time, and for us, it’s a luxury to be tired of it; but for those who get up every morning, look in the mirror, and, still black, set out into the hostile world that cannot see its own hostility, there is no such luxury. Tired, yes, they are tired of the fight, but they have no choice. And they are crying for our help.

It’s time for us to listen. It’s time for us to rise above defensiveness and reach out in love to our black brothers and sisters. Once we are sincerely trying the former, the latter will come naturally.  As white people, the world has belonged to us, and we have the power to exchange a world of oppression and fear for a world of love. It's our move.

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