untimely demise murder of Michael Brown in August 2014, matters of race and racism (both systemic and personal) have been very much at the forefront of many discussions in the US. The barrier of politeness that made in-depth talks of racism taboo outside of academic and racial justice spaces has been lifted and we are all talking. Now, that’s the kind of thing I encourage normally, but the problem is we aren’t all having the same conversation on race and racism. Sometimes, it seems we aren’t even speaking the same language.
The racialized silos that we live in make honest racial discussions very hard to come by. Far too many white people have no meaningful interactions with people of color and, frankly, in many cases they have literally no interactions period with people of color. For people of color and specifically Black people, a power imbalance creates a system where speaking openly and honestly to a white employer, colleague, etc. could have disastrous effects.
Yet a younger Black generation is showing itself to be fearless. They have seen their parents and grandparents grapple with race, they have seen the realities of racism play out in their communities and with their peers, and they are saying “Enough is enough.” This presidential campaign season we have seen candidates forced to address the racial questions in ways that many of us are not quite used to seeing. However the questions must be asked. Racism is the stain that we can’t quite seem to ever wash out in part because we aren’t trying hard enough. We aren’t comfortable with discomfort, and to acknowledge that a white middle class was created at the expense of Black people sits uneasily in the pit of stomachs. Which is why most white people don’t try to think about it much.
To acknowledge that the “hood” and the “ghetto” were government constructs used to keep those people in their place is to acknowledge that many of the truths that white Americans were raised to believe in are lies. To look at the last 60 years in the United States is to see an ugly reality, and some realities are so horrible and so ugly that for many of us we cannot allow ourselves to feel the weight of that inequity. So we look at inequity in bite-sized morsels that won’t choke us to death and we pat ourselves on the back because we aren’t “those” ugly racists, and we do the best that we can and leave it at that. But to those of us staggering under the psychic weight of racism, bite-sized morsels of racialized compassion and care are more a slap in the face than anything else.
I was thinking about this a few days ago when a video surfaced of two Black activists who attended a private Hillary Clinton event and confronted Clinton with words that she had spoken in the 1990s. Clinton wasn’t the president in the 1990s (her husband was) but she also was not a “typical” first lady. The Clinton legacy of the 1990s is one that created hardship for Black and Brown communities, and we are now living with the impact of mass incarceration and other societal changes adversely and disproportionately affecting people of color that really picked up during the Clinton administration. So there is a justification in asking Clinton where she stands on issues that impact communities of color.
In the end, the activist was thrown out and we hear Clinton utter “Let’s get back to the issues.” That single sentence is how I feel most matters of racial justice play out for white people. When you are fully free (and acknowledged as fully human), you don’t understand the urgency of someone else’s desire to get free because you have never not been free. Whether you are the poorest white person in the backwaters of the Delta or Appalachia to the waspiest WASP in the northeast, to possess white skin in a society that normalized and centered whiteness is to hold a privilege that others see but often the holder of said privilege cannot see. Your issues and actions are normalized; they are business as usual. They are the important issues; they are not seen as pesky interruptions or uncomfortable moments. To see someone demand accountability and full humanity is often viewed as rude when the real rudeness is that people have to ask these questions in the first place. Then again, if we lived in a world where all lives mattered, maybe we wouldn’t.
Lately, I find myself wondering how we can shift the narrative so that Black Lives Matter becomes something that really matters to all. That it is as important to us all as the air we breathe and the people we love. How do we take racism out of its compartment and make the full weight felt enough that we all will say enough is enough? I wish I knew…
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