Say, you gathered a group of five of your White friends and five of Your Black friends and asked them to have a no-holds barred discussion about race.
My prediction echoes Major Strasser in Casablana, “You would find the conversation a trifle one-sided.”
Your Black friends would be ready, their ideas formed, their sentences flowing like legal arguments pitched by Harvard-trained attorneys in front of the Supreme Court.
Your White friends would nod.
It’s true. I know of which I speak. I’ve been one of the mute, nodding White people.
I think there are a lot of reasons why White people are so tongue-tied when it comes to race.
They don’t know what they think. This is because, on any given day, they think a thousand different random things about race depending on which Black person they saw or talked to or thought about that day. Black guy at a meeting – nice. Black guy on the street – scary.
They are terrified of thinking out loud. A no-holds barred discussion would set up the environment for open talk, open minds. But most White people can’t be comfortable with that. It’s way too risky. As Abraham Lincoln and apparently a lot of other people said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
They are afraid of sounding more racist than they actually are. White people have a deathly fear of the R word. Racism. To most White people, discussions about race are like a game of Pick-Up Stix played blindfolded. There is always a chance, when they are revealing their true feelings or recounting a story from the past, that what they say will set off the Racism Jackpot. Bells will ring. Lights will flash. And everyone will push their chairs back a few feet. A spotlight might appear from the ceiling.
They are ignorant of the past and a lot of the present. People study and pay attention to the things that really concern them personally. Most people’s (not just White people’s but all people’s) knowledge of the reality and implications of slavery in America is painfully limited – a couple of pages in U.S. History, watching 12 Years a Slave on Netflix. The huge human, economic, social, cultural violence that occurred and then got institutionalized is remote from most people unless they’re living it or looking for it. We fail to connect the dots from past to present because we don’t know much, if anything, about the dots of old. They’re gone and forgotten.
They want the whole issue to go away. “Can’t we all just get along?” Dear Rodney King, yes, that’s what we truly want. We want racism to go away. But it’s not happening. White people who say they treat everyone the same – Black, White or purple (purple is always included, why, I don’t know) just can’t handle the heat in the kitchen. The whole topic makes them uncomfortable. And since they didn’t do anything bad, didn’t have anything to do with slavery or with getting in the way of Black people’s lives, they want to stand outside the circle. They can’t. The circle is mammoth and includes all of us.
So where does this leave us? Stranded.Stuck in the Land of Denial. And it’s crummy there. It rains a lot and when it’s not raining, it’s very foggy.
You can barely see the hand in front of your face.
Postscript: One thing that struck me as I was thinking about this piece was my use of “they” rather than “we” when talking about White people. It seems curious, like I’m not completely comfortable being part of the group I belong to. Interesting.