Let’s Talk About Racism

diversityI was in my twenties, a member of a salon in Fairfield County, CT. (a group of us would gather together on a regular basis to discuss topics of interest in a nod to the salons of yore — pretentious, I know, but hey, I was young. And it was a lot of fun for us geeks) when I first heard someone say, “We’re all racist.” I, born and bred in the South (a woman whose forebears owned slaves and who has Black cousins to prove it, so that’s my shameful legacy), was appalled. I didn’t say, “No we’re not,” which was my knee-jerk reaction, but I thought it. And then I listened some more to what the guy who said it had to say, and I left that gathering and thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it. Guess what. I eventually came to the conclusion that he was right. We are all racist, and in coming to that conclusion, I came to another one. We can’t confront racism or do anything to mitigate the damage it does until we’re willing to admit this, that we are all racist. I don’t think we can have open dialogue between members of two different races (or among members of many different races) until we’re willing to admit it.

Human beings are tribal creatures. There are evolutionary reasons for this. There are also evolutionary reasons for humans to get past it (contrary to what many believe, the world’s major religions have, for the most part, argued that we should get past this tribalism, but to no avail. Biology — a biology often disguised as “religion” — is stronger than the philosophy that could save it. That’s a topic for some other blog post), but we don’t. Most humans are content to stick within their own cultures — to stick with their own kind — and to fear the unknown, to fear those who aren’t like them. One of the great things about America is that we have so many varied tribes, people from so many different cultures. This is also one of the problems with America: having so many means there are bound to be dominant tribes that try to oppress the others.

Personally, I want to get past this tribalism, not just want but long to get past it. When I was in my early twenties, I was naïve enough to think that the way to do that was to move North. Okay, I admit it. I’d fallen for the whole notion that racism was a Southern problem. And I was chicken. My solution to the problem? I wasn’t going to stay and fight (I’m ashamed to admit that when I was younger, even when confronted with racist behavior that made me feel very uncomfortable, I didn’t do much to stop it. I even, on occasion, engaged in what I now consider to be horribly, offensively, racist behavior). No, I did what a Monty-Pythonian knight confronted with a killer bunny would have advised someone to do, “Run away! Run away!”

Run away, I did. First to Connecticut and New York, then to Pennsylvania. What did I discover? Racism exists (surprise! surprise!) in both the North and the South. My brothers and sisters of color could, of course, have told me this way back then, before I moved North. Some of my White brothers and sisters still won’t admit it. I still see Northerners pointing only to the South when they talk about virulent racism, then walk out my Northern door and hear someone openly use the “n” word. I still hear people talk about how offended they were when they visited the South and saw only Blacks cleaning their hotel rooms, cleaning streets, taking care of McMansion yards, etc. I can’t understand why they don’t look around themselves when they come home to see that they may not be Black, but everyone around them laboring in the same way, serving a majority white, middle class population, has brown skin.

I no longer want to run away from racism. I want to confront it, the fact that it’s systemic in American culture, a culture in which Whites were the dominant tribe for so long. I want to confront it in others, in myself. I want to say to people, “Stop pretending this is a problem limited to one area of the country. Or a problem defined by whichever political party you belong to. Or a problem other people have, but you don’t.” I want to challenge my White brothers and sisters to stop being offended when someone accuses them of being racist, and to listen (really listen) instead, to find out why something they’re doing might be considered racist, to learn to put themselves in others’ shoes by letting others describe those shoes, in detail, to them. I want my brothers and sisters of color to call me out when I’m saying/doing something racist, because I know the only way I can stop being racist is to be told what I’m doing that is racist. I need educating (we all do), and the only way to be educated is to be taught. So talk to me, send me articles, send me videos. Let me ask questions. Let’s engage in open dialogue, and no matter how stupid I may sound (and I will sound stupid. I’m really only ignorant. I promise I can learn), please try to stick with me. Please try to be kind.

Having said “please try to be kind”, I also want to note that Americans of color have a right to be angry. They have a right to be angry when some childish crime takes place in a lily-white community and someone says, “Just you wait. When they catch these kids, they won’t be White,” as I once heard someone say. (Yeah, because there are so many people of color living there just dying to draw attention to themselves that way. Better yet, so many are making their way from their own communities to all-White communities to commit such crimes, because they know how safe it is to do that.) Americans of color have a right to be angry when an unarmed Black man is killed by a White police officer and that officer walks away scot-free.

We should all be angered by abuses of power, no matter one’s skin color, and we should put aside all other factors (country of origin, class, party affiliation, religion, gender, etc.) to fight such abuses. I’ve read a couple of articles recently in which people indicated that they expected riots after what happened in North Charleston, S.C., when Walter Scott was shot dead by Michael Slager. My reaction was, “Huh? Why would there be riots?” Yes, it was awful — terrible — and my heart broke when I watched that video footage, seeing a man ruthlessly kill another like that. It makes me very angry. But what assuages my anger? Unlike in the case of Rodney King (some of us are old enough to remember him and how much those reports disturbed us), unlike in the case of Trayvon Martin, unlike Eric Garner, justice was swiftly served here. Slager is a murderer, and he was immediately charged as such. He also lost his job. No, it doesn’t bring Scott back to life, but it was the just thing to do. White people don’t tend to riot when justice is served to compensate for an atrocity. Guess what, White people writing those articles. Neither do Black people. Why riot when justice has been served?

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know that I’m a minister’s wife. As such, I happen to believe that we are all souls temporarily housed in bodies. For some inexplicable reason, my soul happens to be housed in a body in a society in which I’ve been showered with privilege. I’m female, yes, and that has its problems, but I’m White; I’m middle class; my parents were able to afford to spend money on a good education for me; so I’m privileged. There’s no way I’d ever know what it’s like not to be privileged without friends who’ve spent most of their lives standing at the back of the line rather than in the front with me. They open my eyes to how lucky I am.

I don’t happen to believe that this life is all this soul has. What I believe is that my soul goes on and on and that it’s meant to connect with as many other souls as it possibly can, that they all have things to teach me, and I don’t believe those souls are distinguished by color. What this soul has learned so far is that, first and foremost, we are all human. We are shaped by our cultures, yes, but we are all human, and I start with that.

If you’re black or brown or orange or green, I really don’t care. I care to the extent that I want to know what your experience is, but I care much, much more about all we have in common, the ways we laugh and cry and rejoice and mourn together, and all the ways we can love each other despite any differences we might have. And, truth be told again, I have no idea (even if you aren’t someone who believes in the concept of a soul) why anyone wouldn’t want to live a life full of getting to know others, opening themselves up to as much love as they can during these short lives we live here on earth.

So, there you have it. That’s what I think. Tell me what you think.