“Last thing I’m going to say on this subject. Then I’m going back into my bubble where I don’t know that people I like are blithely racist.”
This was recently posted on Facebook by a half-white, half-black, friend of mine. Let’s call her “Mary.”
It’s the kind of statement that strikes fear in the hearts of white friends, like me.
Maybe she wrote it off the cuff, caught in whatever heady emotions she was feeling at the time, but I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t even have the guts to try, except on a secret batcave blog she is unlikely to ever read.
She feels she’s in willful denial most of the time. Even if she likes you, she may be pretending that she doesn’t believe you’re a racist.
Does she think I’m a racist?
We’ve been friends for years. We’ve stayed up all night, sharing painful secrets and ongoing insecurities. One evening, she held my hand after some of our friends shunned me over my divorce and on another night, I talked her through her tears after she overheard people saying mean things about her.
I don’t think I’m a racist, but then again, we keep hearing about how you can be racist without realizing it.
Another black friend recently posted about her sadness about recent tragedies, the painfulness of ongoing racism in our society. I didn’t know what to say without sounding trite, but I wanted to reach out to her. I told her I was sorry she was hurting.
Her friends attacked me for not really caring. Really caring, they told me, meant being willing to die in the name of racial equality.
Later, she posted that any white friends who don’t support your “pro-blackness” are not friends, but overseers. What does “supporting your pro-blackness” mean, exactly?
Is it something like countering “black lives matter” with “ALL lives matter?”
I haven’t done that, but while I’m certain that many of those who do are bonafide racists, I don’t believe all of them are. Some white people, I’m guessing, feel a growing chasm between us and are making misguided attempts to bridge the gap.
Tara and I were best friends in junior high school. We loaned each other video games, swapped tips about the best acne cleansers, and had sleepovers at each others’ houses where we would stay up all night doing dorky stuff like eating bags of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups while writing medieval romance stories involving gothic castles and Consumption. Stuff that 12-year-old girls like to do.
Tara is black and I’m white and this used to be a non-issue, back when we were kids who just got along and didn’t worry about the political implications underlying whatever we did and said. One time, Tara came to my defense when classmates were making fun of my clothes, and another time, I stayed up all night drawing a comic book for her that I thought she’d like.
We lost touch after attending different high schools, but found each other again years later on Facebook. Our relationship has been tense. We planned to meet up one day, see each other for the first time in years, and at the last minute she told me she was feeling too under-the-weather to make it.
The next day she posted a meme (that the Internet won’t let me upload) comparing Covert and Passive Racism in a pyramid, calling passive racism the socially-acceptable kind.
Under Covert Racism, you have: lynching, racial slurs, police harassment, hiring and housing discrimination and racial profiling.
Under passive, socially-acceptable racism, you have: things like Eurocentric curriculum, cultural appropriation, paternalism, expecting POC to teach white people, being “colorblind,” denial of white privilege, fearing POC, self appointed “white ally,” over familiarization with POC, tokenism, and assuming that good intentions are enough.
Some white people are racists, no doubt. Some have racist tendencies, but don’t want to think of themselves that way. Others, like me, look at a chart like that and start wondering if there’s anything we could do or say that wouldn’t fall into one of those categories.
We don’t know what it’s like to be black. How could we? We’ve never been black and hearing about something is never the same as experiencing it.
If we listen to a black friend, trying to understand her perspective, does that fall under expecting POC to teach us? Should we be leaning about POC from other white people instead?
When does expanding Eurocentric curriculum become cultural appropriation? Does the inclusion of black curriculum also count as expecting POC to teach us?
What does “over familiarization with POC” mean? That we aren’t supposed to get too close to black people? Or that we shouldn’t pretend to understand anything you experience?
We shouldn’t ignore our country’s racial struggles, but is passing relevant legislation considered paternalistic?
If we say we support you, are we being racist by becoming “self-appointed white allies?”
We shouldn’t be “colorblind,” but also shouldn’t define people by color.
We shouldn’t be silent, but we also shouldn’t take over the conversation.
Some of us feel powerless, because we mostly are. The world has always been run by elites, which most of us aren’t.
There is no White People convention going on behind your backs, where white people get together to discuss the state of the nation, where someone could submit an “everyone quit being racist” motion. Someone would’ve tried that by now, if it were possible.
Unless we’re part of the one percent, our power is limited to: not being racist, not supporting racism, and voting.
I voted for Obama, twice. Not because he’s black (I wouldn’t vote for Ben Carson), but because he’s an extremely principled and intelligent man who is in line with my politics.
I realize this is the kind of thing people say to prove they aren’t racists, like having black friends. Some even suggest that having a black president means racism no longer exists.
Of course it doesn’t mean that. Not everyone voted for Obama and some folks can barely conceal their anger at having a black president in the Oval Office.
But, Obama was nevertheless elected, though black people still comprise a voting minority. Enough white people, therefore, supported a black man leading the country that he won the presidency, and we wouldn’t be handing a black man the highest office if we believed he was inherently inferior.
Yet it seems wrong to bring that up, as though I’m casually tossing aside centuries of racial wounds in an instant.
Problem is, we can’t touch those centuries of racism. I remember finding out my great great great great grandfather came over from Glasgow, Scotland to work as a doctor during the Civil War. “For the Union?’ I asked my father.
“No,” he quietly replied. “For the Confederates.”
Somehow, I always assumed that growing up in California meant I had little connection to the really ugly days of slavery and lynchings. My people were peasants who settled in the West, not plantation owners. It came as quite a shock to learn my ancestors fought for the South.
“At least he was a doctor,” I thought. It was more comforting to imagine him bandaging up the sick than firing bullets in the name of human bondage.
But he did fight for the Rebels, in the end. Does it stain me? Can I erase it? Do I carry the tainted blood of racists past, or are we all just a product of our upbringing?
And while I feel the stain of centuries-old wounds poisoning generations, I don’t believe we start out this way. I don’t think children are naturally racist. They’re open, they play with other kids and drink in the environment around them.
Tara and I didn’t worry about it while we were growing up. We just played together.
Now it feels like we are being driven further and further onto opposing teams, led by forces beyond our control, realities that neither one of us wants.
And I don’t know what to say anymore, how to help, how to be her friend. I stay quiet because I am afraid of asking the wrong questions, of accidentally aggravating wounds by saying the wrong thing. Good intentions aren’t enough, she believes.
What is enough? What does it look like?
Because silence isn’t helping. We’re left with outspoken racists leading the conversation, people with nothing to lose.
And while my frustrations have nothing on the pain she’s experiencing, I have to wonder if this is what the powers-that-be really want.
Divide-and-conqueor has alway been a winning strategy for the people in charge. There are fewer of them than there are of us, so they need to keep us fighting amongst ourselves.
The best way to do that is play up our differences and hand out little privileges for one side to protect.
“Little privileges” may sound incredibly insulting, as if the entirety of white privilege has been reduced to a crumb, but it’s truer than we think.
They made some slaves house slaves and others were field hands, giving the house slaves privileges and distinctions to protect, but they were still slaves.
A small handful of whites were wealthy plantation owners in those days. Most were struggling in poverty, but they were effectively mobilized into racism because at least they could feel superior to someone else.
When Irish immigrants and poor blacks were becoming friends during the 19th century, cities started passing laws against fraternizing across color lines. They didn’t want the labor class to unionize for better wages and working conditions.
Now we have the red-state working class focused on welfare queens and drug addicts. They are too busy demanding drug tests from the destitute to notice that we have some of the worst working conditions in the developed world. No parental leave, no guaranteed health care, little job security, and fewer benefits than any wealthy nation in the world.
I can’t help wondering if we are all falling into a trap. How can we work on ending racism together when we aren’t even talking? Black people are in pain and white people are either lashing out or staying quiet, afraid to go near anything with possibly racist implications, which seems like everything.
And what ARE we doing?
How do we bridge this gap?
Is it possible?