Racism isn’t something we’re born with, it’s something we learn.
And I think its ultimately about economic competition, though people don’t realize it. Especially the racists.
You see, before I was five years old, my family lived in a very diverse college town where my laid-back, liberal parents let me wander everywhere by myself. I’d just start knocking on doors, starting conversations with people, and my parents begin combing the neighborhood once it started getting dark.
One time, they found me eating dinner with a Mexican family. Another time, I was at an African immigrant’s apartment and he was showing me slides of African kids playing games, which I found super interesting. Yet another time, I was hanging out at some Lebanese guy’s place and he was playing Santa Esmerelda records while cooking lemon chicken and keeping me company.
I didn’t think anything about these people being “different” when I was a little kid. They were nice, which was all I actually cared about.
And now, as a mom, I watch my four-year-old daughter approaching kids of various colors, wanting nothing more than to make new friends. She loves all the Disney princesses, whether they be Elsa, Mulan, or Tiana, and seems to consider their range of racial characteristics no more meaningful than differing hair colors.
Then yesterday, she looked at me and said, “You don’t want any dark babies, mama, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Dark hair, dark skin… you don’t like that, right?”
I wanted to cry. I’ve tried so hard not to bring her up like that, but somehow the idea that dark=bad had still infected her consciousness. Where did it come from?
Where do any of us learn it? When does this happen?
I’ve been watching the whole Trump fiasco for months now, wondering over and over again how he’s still a honest-to-god contender for the highest office in the land. He seems like a caricature, some kind of over-the-top joke who would be too ridiculous if someone tried to make him up. A president who gets into sexist, racist Twitter wars at 3 o’clock in the morning… Really??
And in trying to understand his supporters, I’ve fallen back on my own life experiences. You see, while I clearly don’t support Trump myself, part of me can kind of grasp the mentality of those who do.
It comes from a base of disenfranchised white people who are sick of hearing all about white privilege, and how everything they say is wrong. Especially when we’ve got a black president.
Before anyone starts arguing with me, please understand that I don’t agree with this mentality. Having a black president in no way means racism is over. But I think it’s important to first understand where people are coming from if you want at least a snowball’s chance in Hell of someday changing their minds.
The narrative of white privilege assumes that white people have tremendous advantages. By virtue of our color, we’re automatically assumed to be more competent, law-abiding, and well-intentioned, and are generally given the benefit of the doubt. Even if we didn’t personally participate in creating these systems of white privilege, we benefit from them, which makes it easier to succeed.
This is largely true, except it doesn’t take class privilege into account. Being poor sucks and is hard to escape, no matter what color your skin.
Most white people aren’t part of the 1% elite. Economics just don’t work like that. It takes a ton of lower-class labor to provide a small group of people with the ability to buy multiple houses and little islands while sending their kids to Ivy League schools where they end up suffering from “affluenza.” It’s basically a giant pyramid scheme.
Take my family, for instance. My grandfather picked cotton for sharecroppers when he was five years old. His family was too poor to buy him shoes or always give their kids enough to eat.
When he moved out West, his accent and 8th grade education made him ineligible for white-collar jobs. He married my grandmother (who never attended high school) when she was 16, then learned to paint cars well enough to buy a house and make sure his children never went hungry, like he had.
They fed their kids, back when learning an honest trade meant you could buy a house and live comfortably on one salary, but they still were uneducated people. They considered college a huge waste of time and didn’t want their children to someday feel superior.
I’m the second person in my family to ever get a high school education. I later enlisted in the Army to get the GI Bill so I could eventually earn a degree. Doing so changed my perspective, but many of my cousins grew up not eating enough, in a trailer with a single, meth-addicted, prostitute mom. Other cousins have been in jail, or have baby-daddies on parole who occasionally beat them.
And we’re all white as hell.
I’m easily one of the most educated members of my family while also being the most liberal. I can’t understand why anyone suffering through poverty would back the party that supports low wages, reduced benefits, low corporate regulations & taxes, and seems to bend over backwards to only accommodate the richest among us.
Except that I kind of do. See, back in the day, if you learned a trade and worked hard enough, you could buy a house and comfortably support a family.
Those days are over. Now, people go into lifelong debt to get college degrees that mean nothing. Moms used to stay home to take care of the kids, because a single salary could support an entire family, which meant no one had to pay crushing daycare costs or be forced to put money away for college if they wanted their kids to have half a chance.
Most people are struggling now, whites included. Our economics have changed. The real value of our salaries has dropped enormously, college and daycare costs have skyrocketed, and our society hasn’t accommodated the new framework of both parents usually being employed.
Because the whole economic landscape has changed. Since Reagan was in office, our regulations and tax codes have increasingly favored the rich. According to Bloomberg data, the ratio of CEO pay to that of the average worker exploded 1000% since 1950. Fortune 500 CEOs now make 204 times regular workers on average, up from 42-to-1 in 1980 and 20-to-1 in 1950.
I could go on and on with the charts and statistics, but the important point is that life has gotten much harder for most people. The right wing keeps pushing through easier policies for rich people, since they’re the “job creators,” while convincing a bunch of rank-and-file workers that it’s in their best interests too.
I’m not saying that racism isn’t a devastating, added complication, but the truth is the average white person has far more in common with the average black person that either of them do with the CEO’s of the companies they work for.
And we have the numbers. We live in a democracy.
We could get together and vote in whatever we want.
We would demand higher wages, lower taxes, and benefits on par with our fellow wealthy nations. We could demand subsidized daycare, universal health care, free college educations, and all the things our European neighbors already have that makes their average quality-of-live rank so much better than ours, despite their lower frequency of gazillionaires.
Because there’s power in numbers. That’s what unions once figured out.
Which is exactly why the ruling elite don’t want us getting together. They want us on opposing teams, because that means we won’t combine to come after them.
So, they convince uneducated white people that minorities are the whole reason life is so hard. They’re all a bunch of scandalous drug addicts that sleep around and suck up your tax dollars to live on the dole. If it weren’t for them, and all this politically-correct bullshit, you’d be doing just fine.
And poor white people can be convinced it’s really true. After all, how come their grandparents could get by on a plumber’s salary and how come poor black kids can get into Ivy Leagues on scholarship when their kids could never go in a million years?
There was once a black student, in my mediocre high school in my trailer-park town, who eventually went to Harvard on a full scholarship. One of my English teachers made the class read an essay she had written a couple of years after she’d left.
It was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, and she undeniably deserved to attend Harvard with a mind like that.
But the thing is, no one else from that school ever attended Harvard. I had a 4.26 GPA, with multiple honors in nationwide tests, yet I didn’t stand a chance. Neither did anyone else. White kids got bitter.
Problem is, it’s not that the black student didn’t deserve to go… it’s that blue-collar kids in general deserve opportunities, whenever they’re smart and hardworking enough to make use of them.
Poor white people struggle too, then keep hearing about white privilege and how everything was obviously handed to them. Like every struggle they ever faced doesn’t count. Like they’re not even worth the pitiful lifestyles they’ve managed to achieve.
They’re brainwashed into thinking minorities are the real problem. Then, minorities suffer enough cruelty at the hands of the whites to start wondering if practically all white people are secretly raging racists. White people feel the hostility coming from minorities, which only reinforces the idea that minorities were the enemy, all along.
And it’s wrong, but these folks don’t have enough perspective to imagine what a different set of factors could be like. They’re lost in their own day-to-day struggles to keep the lights on and make sure their kids get fed.
And I’m not sure what we can do about it, because the racism is real. Craploads of white people are brainwashed into hating people of color and they internalize it, acting in unspeakable ways.
Especially when the elites, the 1% who own 40 % of the nation’s wealth, keep profiting off of the struggle. We keep fighting with each other, while they sit back and plan where to go next on their private jets, while convincing poor whites that taking time off after having a baby is too big an inconvenience for all the job creators, since good women would’ve kept their legs closed.
Never mind that 1000 % increase in relative CEO salaries, or the fact that the richest people are paying the lowest taxes, or the fact that two parents, both working the longest work weeks in the industrialized world, are still suffocating under mountains of debt. Because minority “entitlements” or flawed white brain chemistry are the real problem.
The elites are happy to let us keep fighting amongst ourselves. That way no one notices how much we’re both are getting screwed and decides to do something about it.
I don’t know how to fix this, this problem that’s been happening for centuries. When poor Irish immigrants were considered a subhuman race in 19th century America, for example, they were fighting for the same jobs as disenfranchised blacks. They started talking to each other about unionizing and intermarrying before suddenly, there started being laws against different races fraternizing.
So, the poor Irish started keeping away from blacks, lost their accents after a couple of generations, assimilated into American white culture, then became incredibly racist. Black people were right to find this incredibly offensive, but it was the powers-that-be who set it all up in the first place.
I don’t know how we fix it, but some ridiculously idealistic part of me is convinced that we can. Because I honestly don’t believe we’re born hating each other.
In the beginning, we just want to be friends.
I’ve seen it. I know it.
One more thing. One time, I was at a light rail stop when a black Jehovah’s Witness stopped to talk with me.
I wasn’t about to convert, but she was a sweet woman and I didn’t want to be rude. I took her little pamphlet and was polite before getting on the train.
Once I was on the train, I flipped through it out of curiosity. It was a bunch of children’s drawings of different-colored people getting along in heaven.
It made me tear up. See, when I was in Sunday school as a kid, all my friends pictured heaven as a place where you get to eat endless marshmellows and play your harp while siting on piles of gold.
But this woman just pictured a place where everyone liked each other. This dream was the beautiful reward awaiting her entire belief system.
And I know we can do it.
It’s in there somewhere. For all of us.
I’ve seen it.