I analyze literature as part of my career and, believe it or not, for fun. Whereas I am not always eloquent in my thoughts and speech and often am rash in offering my opinions, literature is carefully constructed and planned and says just the right words at just the right time. I was thinking about Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun recently, in particular about Mr. Lindner’s comments to the Younger family when he tries to get them not to move into a white neighborhood. He seemingly wants to be an advocate for the family when he says, “We feel that most of the trouble in this world, when you come right down to it—most of the trouble exists because people just don’t sit down and talk to each other…That we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem. The other guy’s point of view.” Just for a moment, the family feels hopeful because they are thinking, “Finally. Here is a white man who is willing to listen to us and accept us as part of this new community.” Unfortunately, they could not have been more wrong. Lindner was not there to listen to the Youngers; he wanted them to listen to him. He wanted them to see the so-called logic of his argument and let him pay them not to move into their new house. Don’t you know he sounded nice for just a moment and truly believed he was doing what was best for the family.
Therein lies the issue. There are lots of well-intentioned individuals – I’m talking to the white people – who truly believe that our society has a race problem because we “just don’t sit down and talk to each other” and love others enough. Yet when the talking commences, as white people we want to do all the talking, and it seems we only want to love the people who agree with us and our opinions, even though none of us have ever experienced what black Americans have lived every single day of their lives. We truly believe that if we are good people and love everyone equally, that’s enough. But that’s not enough and puts all the focus on us, as white people, where the focus has always been.
There is a common misconception that if you are a good person, you can’t be racist because racists are members of the KKK or white nationalist groups. Racists use the “N-” word and tell inappropriate jokes. Racists jump in their trucks and hunt down and kill black men who are out for a run or kneel with their knees on black men’s necks until they die. What you might not realize, however, is that racists are also silent in the face of injustice or criticize so loudly the persons speaking their truth about oppression that they drown out the voices of the oppressed. Racism is a social structure, not simply a single overt action or event. Sometimes you can’t see it, but if you really understand what it is, you know it’s there. And if you are white and were raised in this country as I was, I hate to admit it, but there is some aspect about each of us that is racist, whether it is conscious or not.
We are either passive in our efforts to stamp out inequity, or we are in denial and choose to ignore the fact that our country is not as great as it could be. We associate pointing out the ills of society with a lack of patriotism, and that is far from the truth. Trying to improve the country we live in for the benefit of all its citizens is not traitorous; it’s an act of love. Would you allow your child to slap or steal toys from another child he or she was playing with? Would you allow them to run through the streets, kicking your neighbors’ dogs and wreaking havoc? Of course not. You would reprimand them and correct them because you love your child and want them to be their best self.
For a white person, thinking that we might be racist or have racist beliefs is tough to accept. Even thinking about race is uncomfortable because as white people, never in our lives have we had to consider our race. Whiteness is considered the norm in our society. We don’t even refer to ourselves as white; why would we? Race is a term saved for other people, meaning those who are not white. When the topic of race or racism comes up, we either get defensive and protest how much we are not racist or shut down altogether and go silent. Worse yet, we ignore an entire history of a people because it is not our history, meaning white history. We want to preserve history when we think about the “good ole days” or when we talk about our ancestors who fought in wars to protect the freedoms we expect and enjoy. But it never occurs to us that the “good ole days” weren’t good or even safe for everyone. Not everyone is safe today, and certainly not everyone enjoys those freedoms we vehemently cling to.
“All lives matter!” “They ought to be lucky they don’t live in some third world country without food and water.” “Slavery was then. This is now. It doesn’t affect me.” “If people would stop bringing up racism, it wouldn’t exist anymore.” “Why can’t we all just get along?” “Why are we still talking about race in 2020?”
I’m paraphrasing, but these are other comments I have recently heard, comments that indicate how little we as white people understand. We are still talking about race because we have never truly acknowledged that every single system we have in our society was built on racism. Every. Single. One. Leaders of the past strategically and deliberately put policies and laws into place to exalt white individuals and diminish those with black and brown skin, and many of these policies and laws are still in existence. As one example of many, slavery morphed into convict leasing, which morphed into Jim Crow laws, which morphed into the mass incarceration we have seen for the past fifty years, all of which were legal and sanctioned by either the federal government, state governments, or both.
On top of systemic practices that make equity virtually impossible for non-white individuals, implicit bias (that every human has) prevents persons of color, especially black people, from being taken seriously and being heard. Have you thought about why the black community has been hit hardest with Covid-19? One reason is doctors have not taken the symptoms of black patients as seriously as the symptoms of white patients. So while we white people might be tired of hearing about race, imagine how exhausted black individuals are when they don’t have the luxury of ever forgetting about it.
For those of you who are still reading, I ask you to stop being defensive and listen. Listen to those who have been silenced by white power for far too long. Listen when your neighbors, whom you claim to love, cry out in pain and anger and tell you stories of being the targets of racism on a daily basis. More than anything, I ask you to learn. Learn the history that we white individuals were never taught because the truth will shock you and, I hope, leave you appalled and motivated to make necessary changes. If we say we vow to spread kindness and love, let our actions match our words. Let us begin not to dismantle a broken system, for the system we have works exactly the way it was intended. Let us instead construct a new one, one that demonstrates we truly do value all lives.