Racism is rampant. All sides, in the barrage of social media regarding the recent shootings of civilians and officers, have demonstrated these racist tendencies:
These further no one’s cause and foster the opposite, as any social scientist will tell you. Talking in terms of “us versus them” alienates. It objectifies and dehumanizes. It distances people from seeing or seeking commonality. Herd thinking, or mob mentality, is the human tendency to copycat, and research shows we lapse into it by default. Confirmation bias is the “seeking and interpreting evidence in ways that confirm what you already think,” according to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, p. 80.
I was born into white privilege (and by that I mean, a Caucasian, middle-class, educated home), and society has treated me well because of it. Thirteen years ago, I married into the African-American community, and without sharing his story here, my husband had a disparate experience growing up in America.
With a foot lodged in both worlds now, I have experienced life differently. I have personally encountered the effects of structural oppression and racism. We have experienced times and locations where we stood out and have seen threat. The Saturday after the police were killed in Dallas we were to spend the day in a metropolitan city. My husband said, “Let’s not go.” I asked, “Why?” He replied, “Because [this city] already has enough racial tension, and I don’t want to be there if a riot or shooting breaks out.” I protested, “Well, isn’t that cratering to fear? I say we should live our lives freely” to which he slowly replied, “Things are too hot now. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want someone getting upset over us or me. I have to think about you. I have to protect my family.” Being white, I have rarely considered such a thing. Wait a minute, I thought. This is the United States of America. This is a free country. Or is it? Is it equally free for everyone?
The things I hear. The things I have said. Racism is rampant.
My observations of racism did not start with marriage. Once at a public speaking conference, my roommate was an African-American college student who later shared her experience with me. She was part of the team who led the evening sessions, and the main speaker, educated and well-meaning, turned to my roommate and said, “Why don’t you lead tonight’s music? Surely you sing given your background.” What background? Because she was black, somehow this ushered her into the talent of her African ancestors’ rhythm? My friend, in fact, had admitted no musical talent, so not only was she placed in a very awkward position, she was tempted to feel shame for not somehow representing “her people” well. I was stunned.
Recently, my friend, at a university association, expressed his difficulty during a session in being a person of color at a principally white institution (PWI). A colleague, again presumably well-meaning and trying to be helpful, said to him on a break, “Why don’t you leave this PWI then and go to an all-black institution (e.g. HBCU) where you might be more comfortable?” Really? My friend was not looking to leave; he was seeking encouragement. How about offering support in some tangible way?
These are not isolated incidents; identity contingencies are real. These may seem minuscule, even innocuous, by comparison to the altercations that have led to so many deaths. These absent-minded comments, however, represent the mere surface of the micro-aggressions of racism that persons of color can face every single day. Ezekiel Kweku describes his “ambient fear” poignantly. I can personally testify for all to heed:
They’re not making this stuff up.
Or rather, we’re not making this stuff up. It is real. It is tragic. Here are two other personal narratives of men commonly encountering racism. Tim Scott, a Republican U.S. senator (and only), shares the first; Brian Crooks offers the second.
I am, of course, not at all condoning the related loss of life of policeman as justified, any more than I would say that police deaths should justify officers being more brutal with persons of color. Do not let the realities of “black on black violence” or those who claim victimization illegitimately detract us from the reality that people are treated differently in this country because of the color of their skin. Of the many articles and opinions posted, here is a highlight that I found most life-giving, one that points a way forward. Writing as a sociologist and as an African-American, Dr. George Yancey shares his thoughts.
I share, lastly, a stunning moment of balance and truth and wisdom. After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, my friend, who is an African-American living in Dallas, struggled in light of tragedy and confusion and outrage. She posted a photo on Facebook and wrote, “With a heavy heart and forced smile, I debated what to wear today. I chose this.” Her selfie showed her wearing a deep purple shirt with this etched on it, #Love. I felt sadness that she would have the burden of enduring and yet set her heart to love. Her response expressed a seasoned, mature, and weary one: always love. Forgiveness disarms evil. She is my example.
Actions seed from the human heart which spawn our thoughts and motivations. We stay racist because we keep stumbling over our prejudice. Change happens first personally and daily. My friend chose well. As Bryan Loritts has said, “Patience is not passive indifference.” We must seek each other. All must seek due process in every case. All must be humbly self-critical. We must speak truth without bitterness.
Learn More: My top recommendations remain Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the Word and Me. Bryan Loritts elsewhere recommends his top five books for understanding black America. On my list to read are Beyond Racial Gridlock, Divided by Faith, Notes from a Native Son, Just Mercy, and The Souls of Black Folk.
“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (1956).
“Nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin