Listening and Learning about Race
I am a white middle aged man. Even though I proudly hail from a city that has an African-American population percentage of about 65%, if the truth be told, I have never really had to worry about race too much from a personal perspective. Growing up in the suburbs and going to Sunday school every week, like most middle class white kids, I was taught that "all people were created equal." Until recently, I believed that racism was simply reduced to heinous acts committed by horrible people towards people of color. I was wrong.
I now realize that racism goes much deeper than the vitriol and actions of obvious bigots like David Duke, Richard Spencer, or the trolls on Twitter who spew hateful racist rhetoric. Like most white people existing in a bubble, I didn't know what I didn't know. My hometown of Memphis is widely known as the birthplace of rock 'n roll and the home of the blues. It is also the place where the hopes and dreams of many died when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. Due to my mostly segregated upbringing, I did not have a single Black classmate until the sixth grade. It did not get much better after sixth grade, as I can count the number of classmates of color I had for the remainder of my school days on one hand.
Four decades later, many of the schools in Memphis, are still mostly segregated. Things have changed very little in this regard. Some schools have tried to make a conscious effort to be more racially inclusive, but for the most part, the majority of these schools are about as diverse as the neighborhoods they reside in, which is not very much. This is where the crux of racism lies. This is nothing exclusive to Memphis and the South. Sadly, it is the norm in most parts of the USA.
I may be naive, but I believe that most of us are not intentionally racist on a conscious level. However, we have all been socialized into a system that propagates racial inequities. In other words, we live in and support structures and systems that produce discriminatory practices. Stated quite simply, we either benefit from systemic racism or we are victims because of it, solely based on the color of our skin. I am confident that the victims are well aware of it, unlike most of the beneficiaries, who are either asleep or in denial about it. (Please note: I am not talking about those who are overtly racist here. That warrants an entirely different discussion.)
It is not the purpose of this post to try to convince anyone that racism is still alive in our society. It's not up for debate. Volumes of books have been written and innumerable research studies have been conducted to illustrate just how badly the system is stacked against Blacks in ways such as: voter oppression, predatory lending, inferior schools, segregated neighborhoods, prison incarceration rates, and wage inequalities, to just name a few. Those who continue to claim that we live in a "post racial society," are dead wrong. A quick glance at the daily headlines or cable news networks will affirm this. It is interesting to note, that what we see in these news mediums is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racism. Most of it is ingrained deeply into our social stratification, often naked to the blind eye.
The conversations that Black parents and White parents have with their children about race are much different. Black parents are forced to have "the talk" with their kids about how to avoid conflicts with the police if they are stopped. My parents, like I would imagine many White parents do, talked to me in terms of race relations by using sentiments like:
"All people are created equal."
"We are colorblind in this family."
"We are not racist in this family."
"We are all God's children, regardless of color."
"We have lots of Black friends."
When a conversation about race is taking place between people of color and Whites, and a White person utters one of these phrases, even if the intention is good, it automatically shuts down the conversation. What could have been meaningful dialogue is halted at this point. When a White person says one of these phrases to a Black person, it basically tells that person that they do not believe racism is an issue, and therefore, they are not going to continue the conversation. In doing so, the White person also fails to acknowledge that the Black person has a different experience in our society, filled with many obstacles Whites do not have to deal with. The intention may be in the right place, but the result is often devastating to the recipient on the receiving end.
It is helpful if we teach children to listen and learn when it comes to race relations. As a White man, it has taken me many years to realize that I don't always have to have a "quick phrase" ready to say when I am in a conversation about race. It's more beneficial for me to listen to my friends of color during these conversations, instead of offering up an awkward "I'm colorblind." Not only does that kind of phrase end the conversation prematurely, but it also tells my friend that I do not see him as who he really is, a Black person. Being Black is a large part of a Black person's identity, as it should be. Who am I to say I don't see that? A large part of the problem is that as White people many of us have been taught not to see (or at least not to acknowledge seeing) skin color. We can't speak out against the injustices of racism if we are not able or willing to see it. For any meaningful change to take place, we need to be self-aware enough to acknowledge, see, and cooperate to defeat racism. Modeling this for children is imperative. We can't speak out against the injustices of racism if we are not able or willing to see them.
Uttering these types of "I'm colorblind" phrases puts White people in a neutral protective space. Being "neutral" makes us complicit to racism. As Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, contends, we are either racist or anti-racist. There really is no neutral. As we all know, children are sponges. In observing our words and actions, we either teach them to be racists or anti-racists. There is no in-between.
I'm certainly no expert on this subject. With that said, I have made a conscious effort to learn more about racism in hopes of becoming a stronger anti-racist. Some good books I recommend if you want to do the same include: How to Be an Anti-Racist, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America's Heartland by Dr. Jonathan Metz.
There are also some really good books that teach white children and teens about racism. These include: The Skin I'm in: A First Look at Racism by Pat Thomas and Lesley Harker, Let's Talk About Race by Julius Lester and Karen Barbour, Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, and The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas.
I am a prime example that it is never too late to broaden your understanding of the complex injustices of racism in our society. While it also takes action to defeat racism, we must start by first being open to listening and learning.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com