A Look in the Mirror
“Whites only! White Power!” were the chants coming from a child at a pool party my family attended this summer. I immediately turned to chastise the young boy who was shouting it and noticed that while the other boys were not participating, they were not stopping it either. Then I looked down.
My son, Mateo, whose dark brown summer skin reflects his Mexican roots, was looking up at me. He was crouched on the side of the pool, desperately looking for the ladder to get out because those chants were being directed at him. My eyes met his and it was as if I was experiencing his terror, fear, confusion, and pain. I froze in disbelief and then came the rage, anguish, and humiliation that comes from being a victim of racism.
My husband was inside and I rushed my son into the house, half-yelling, half-sobbing to him about what I had just witnessed. Pete just calmly packed up our things and said, “Don’t cause a scene. Let’s just leave.” I began to protest, but he firmly led me to the car. I was desperately trying to pull myself together and his lack of emotion frustrated me.
I asked Pete how he could possibly remain so calm in the face of this horrifying experience and he said, “Nikki, I’ve been dealing with this shit all of my life.”
White Americans do not like to talk about race. We complain: “Why does everything have to be about race?” “Slavery ended hundreds of years ago,” we say. “Why are we still talking about it?” “If they don’t like it here, then why don’t they leave?” “Race only matters if you let it.”
We also love to change the conversation and deflect: “All Lives Matter.” “Black people are racist too, you know.” “I agree with people’s right to protest, but just not in this manner.”
We also rationalize: “I don’t see color.” “I’m not racist, my (insert family, friend, coworker etc. here) is (insert any other race here).” “I don’t like that Trump makes those racist comments, but I voted for him because he’s a businessman, or I wanted a tax break, or he’s not politically correct, or he’s a Republican (add all other rationalizations for ignoring bigotry here).”
February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the triumphs and recognize the struggles of black Americans. I would like to suggest that white Americans, particularly those of us who are parents, use this as a time to honestly reflect upon our role in unknowingly perpetuating racial disparities and our responsibilities in breaking down barriers for those who have long been disenfranchised.
We need to ask ourselves whether we choose to ignore uncomfortable truths or force ourselves to understand the harsh realities and brutal history that have stained the American experience for so many of our fellow citizens.
A recent study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center finds that American schools are significantly inadequate at teaching the history of slavery and all of the injustices that followed. The report lays out key problems with the way slavery is presented to students and suggests that because we don’t do a solid job explaining slavery, these issues extend to other relevant topics, such as the Civil Rights movement and current events.
While our base of education on the topic is lacking, as adults, many of us aren’t interested in studying the history of discrimination in this country on our own. So many of us don’t want to make the effort to more deeply understand the mission of social justice movements, and we won’t take the time to listen to the thoughtful statements of activists and protesters who bravely speak their truths.
I must admit that I used to be this way too. I knew I wasn’t racist and I understood racism to be wrong, theoretically, but I honestly didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. We had the Civil Rights Movement, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and now we were living Dr. King’s dream, right?
I can count on one hand the people of color I had meaningful interactions within my formative years. I had little opportunity to experience the diversity of race, culture, or religion until I attended public high school. Even then, racial divisions separated students so much that I remember being warned never to date a “black boy” and that the white students should boycott the annual Black History assembly, among countless other racially charged sentiments that were (and sometimes still are) commonplace.
I can guarantee that I dismissed others’ lived experiences and ignored the plight of minorities because it wasn’t my experience and therefore was not my concern. I’ve always tried to do the right thing, but I’m ashamed that I didn’t always speak out when someone made a racist joke or comment at a party or family function.
As I became more educated, with a more nuanced understanding of history and racism, my worldview began to change. I also became more confident and brave enough to speak out more forcefully when I witnessed discrimination in my daily interactions.
It wasn’t until I began teaching, though, reading essays from a diverse range of students and speaking with very smart and thoughtful colleagues, that my perspective truly began to shift. These students share their lived experiences and allow me to see the world through their eyes, if only for a few pages. Curious, I am always looking for more insight and more cultural and historical context to help me understand, to allow me to develop empathy.
Reading the works of prominent scholars has helped me to begin learning about the complex, ugly history of discrimination and systematic oppression in our country, the remnants of which still remain. I’ve learned about mass incarceration, redlining, implicit bias, and microaggressions. I forced myself into the uncomfortable space that required me to understand that I benefit from a long, bloody, horrific history of institutionalized racism. However, I still could not truly feel the emotional pain of racism until I saw it in the eyes of my son.
My son’s experience is just a tiny sampling of what so many people of color endure in their lifetimes. I do not pretend to equate one instance of ignorance with the lifetime of injustices, slights, and ugliness that so many people of color endure and I most definitely cannot speak for any person who lives that reality.
The fact that, in 2018 United States of America, black parents still agonize about sending their children into a world where they know they will be mistreated and family traditions include, “The Talk” about how not to die when having interactions with authority figures is disgraceful. What’s even more heart wrenching, though, is that so many people in our country choose to ignore or dismiss massive inequities because it makes us uncomfortable. We are unknowingly passing this damaging tradition on to our children, perpetuating injustice instead of confronting it.
This is not about having sympathy or making anyone into a helpless victim, and it is not about demonizing white people, including police officers, either. Instead, we must begin the painful process of healing through knowledge and empathy. I am urging white American parents to listen.
It is imperative that we value the lived experiences of people of color and resist the impulse to react defensively, dismissing protests against racism as identity politics or playing the race card. Most importantly, we need to accept uncomfortable truths.
Because many of us have not had the opportunity to interact meaningfully with diverse groups of people, we develop explicit and implicit biases. These biases exhibit themselves every single day in our white friends and family. And yes, if we’re brutally honest, probably in ourselves.
We must ask ourselves hard questions:
When black athletes kneel in protest against systematic racism that exhibits itself in our criminal justice system, why are we more upset by the protest than the outrageous injustices these men are protesting?
When mortality rates for black mothers are 3x higher than white women and the root cause is racism, why are we not worrying about being pro-their lives?
When black people voice their concerns that they don’t feel their lives matter, why do we cover our ears and yell, “All Lives Matter!”, instead of vehemently insisting that yes, Black Lives do Matter?
Maya Angelou once mused, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” As citizens, we must work to know better and educate ourselves, both in the ugly history of discrimination and in the lived experiences of those who experience the effects of this discrimination daily.
Our responsibility as parents is to teach our children these uncomfortable truths and help them to understand the complex nature of racism and how it shapes all of our experiences. While this takes work, learning is the easy part.
Next, we must do better.
As white Americans, we need to take a long, honest look in the mirror. While we might not be wearing hoods and burning crosses, it is crucial that we are honest with ourselves about how we might be contributing to the perpetuation of inequality.
We may consider ourselves to be “Good White People” but our inaction is just as dangerous as the racist actions of others. Our denials and refusals to acknowledge inequality are just as damaging as those who perpetrate discrimination. Our willingness to overlook or ignore the ugly racist ideology expressed by our leaders, our friends, and our family, constitutes complicity.
My children are growing up in a much more dynamic environment than I did. I am incredibly grateful that they are living in a different reality than mine and have opportunities to live, learn, and play in a diverse space as their lived experience.
But, I’m also horrified that they are living in a time when the ugly racist underpinnings of our culture have been exposed. We are forced to reckon with the truth so many white Americans have denied: racism did not die with the Civil Rights Movement or even with the election of our first black President. Instances of race-based bullying have increased in schools, white nationalists are recruiting on college campuses, and American hate groups are on the rise in the past year.
While it’s easy to recognize explicit racism, much of the racism we live with is much more elusive but just as dangerous.
As I watch my children interact with their peers, and as we discuss how far we’ve come, but how much further we have to go, I’m both saddened and hopeful. I am confident that our children will eventually move forward with a much more nuanced understanding of their world and empathy for others, but it will take their parents’ support to get there. Joining in the celebration of Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to get started.
We can educate ourselves, and then help our children navigate the racist minefields of our culture. We can be honest with ourselves so that we can then have frank conversations with our children. We can admit our mistakes and resolve to do better. Most importantly, we must live the ideology that we teach, learn to recognize discrimination, and speak out against injustice wherever and whenever it appears in our lives. We owe this to ourselves, our communities, and all of our children.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Letter From Birmingham Jail
If you are interested in learning more, please check out the links included in this article and the accompanying resource page.
Photo Credit Matthew Jenkins Photography