February is Black History Month. Hopefully everyone has seen “Hidden Figures” by now, and joined in the applause at the end for the heroism of those women who did not let prejudice prevent them from excelling and serving their country.
But there’s a line in that movie that is barely noticeable, and that few of us (and by “us,” I mean white people, especially white conservatives) really understand. Dorothy says to her companions, “Any upward movement is movement for us all.”
We know what she means–that she’s referring to the advancement of her race. But do we really understand the psychological impact of that position? And why is it relevant in 2017?
Some of you are thinking, “Wait, did she just admit to being a white conservative?? Where’s a rock?!”
Some of you are thinking, “Um, I think she’s about to give me another lecture about #Black Lives Matter.”
Some of you are thinking, “What can a white girl teach me about this?” (The answer to that one is, “Probably nothing.”)*
So who am I, and get to the point:
I was born and raised in Georgia. I went to a public high school where Caucasians made up about 30% of the demographics. So I had (and still have) black friends. My background and past voting habits have also leaned conservative, based not merely on what my parents taught, but some of my own research. But because I have so many friends and family of all political persuasions who I deeply care for and whose integrity I respect, I have usually considered myself in the middle; I can usually find a way to understand disparate points of view.
More and more, I realize that this is not common enough. Consider this animation that maps the long trend of polarization of the parties. I have no doubt that it has come about due to frequent demonization on both sides, the ad hominem attacks, the straw man and either/or fallacies. There’s too much ranting and not enough real listening. Not the kind that involves offense or defense, but the kind of listening that seeks first to understand completely, then to problem solve. The kind that involves recognizing when the paradigms are so different that you must completely lay aside your own before you can understand. Anyone who has been married for longer than 5 minutes should be familiar with this.
You have to take off your own shoes before you can put on someone else’s.
In that spirit, I have some thoughts I’d like to share specifically with people whose background is similar to mine: white, conservative, not necessarily southern, but you have friends of all ethnicities, and you consider yourself a decent human being. You’re tired of being called Racist. Of being portrayed as misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, poor-excuse-for-a-human-being-ic. Tired of being associated with real racists and skinheads, because what you see every day is people getting along, white and black. You’re tired of Democrats not listening to you. You just want the federal government to stop taking everything over and screwing it all up. You believe in the constitution, you’re patriotic. And when people say that the cops in our country are Racist, you provide statistics like this, which are clearly logical–and therefore, you don’t have to listen. You know better.
I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve had these thoughts myself.
I have also spent the last several years with this question tumbling through my head: Can you be a Racist and not know it?
I first heard Oprah assert something like this years ago, and I thought about it for a long time. I self-reflected. I watched the documentary about Black Mormons and (certainly learned a few things about historical events in our church), and examples of micro-aggressions people had experienced.
My gut wants to say, “No! I’m not!” Because I have no enmity towards others, and God knows my heart. And if He isn’t going to hold it against me if I say something that accidentally offends someone, why should anyone else?
The tendency for most of us who have faced these kinds of questions is then to become a bit thick-skinned about any kinds of accusations of racism. To think, “They’re exaggerating,” or “They’re being manipulated by party leaders.” Or, “Why do they always have to set things on fire?” And therefore–we can disregard whatever else that group might be asserting (like Black Lives Matter). Because their viewpoint must not be based on reality.
Here comes the “take off your shoes” part. (Really: take a minute and kick them off. Wiggle your toes. Get comfy. Pretend you’re listening to your spouse, your BFF. You’re curious.) Remember, if we want our society to be made of people who are willing to understand us, we have to be willing to understand.
Consider these ideas (a few these I’ve only just come to understand and appreciate recently):
- As white people, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as individuals, that one’s choice and accountability reflects only on oneself (and maybe one’s family). That even though other white people might be racist, I’m not, so it doesn’t affect me.
- This isn’t the case if you are black: W.E.B. Dubois explained this idea of double consciousness back in the early 20th century. If you’re black, you’re conscious of yourself as black, as a collective, and then as an individual. And things haven’t changed. For generations, the actions of a black individual spoke for the entire race. For generations, the entire black race has been judged by its individuals. This is what Dorothy meant in the movie. Being black means representing your entire race, not just yourself. This is the weight of being first Black, and second, an individual.
- Consider this essay, written by a well-educated black man, who tells about his experience walking through the streets of Chicago.
- When you see blue lights in your rearview mirror, are you annoyed, or afraid? Consider the young black male in this story.
- This is what “white privilege” means. It means we don’t carry the load of history on our backs every time we apply for a job, or walk down the street, or get pulled over. We don’t have to prove anything about our entire race–we only have to prove who we are as an individual.
So if you don’t like the “R” word–if that keeps you from understanding because it contradicts your experience–think about it this way: Your freedom to be seen primarily as an individual, and not a collective, is a privileged position, and affects the way you see the world. And you may never see the world around you the way people of color do, because generations of your family haven’t had to resist years of prejudice and violence.
So, what about “reverse” racism? Why do they lump all white people together and call them racist?
And I would then say: Are you surprised?
I read this poem a few weeks ago, and it brought home all that I’d been thinking about. If you don’t remember the incident in the title, you can read about it here:
Jasper texas 1998
BY LUCILLE CLIFTON
for j. byrd
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.
(Did you notice the year? 1998. Not ancient history.)
Can we really say that, being white, we feel anything close to the psychological fatigue expressed here? Is being called “racist” really just as bad as living through generations of being treated as subhuman? I don’t think it compares.
I don’t really have any specific call to action here. If you’ve been willing to read this, and read the stories linked here, and spend time pondering, and consider a new paradigm, that’s the beginning of something. (I myself still have a long list of books to read to get some more answers about why the political divide is the way it is because I’m not satisfied with the divisive narratives that are out there.)
But hopefully, when you put your own shoes back on, you will feel the difference. You’ll remember how paper-thin the soles of those other shoes were, and how they pinched your feet.
*For my friends of color, I hope I have fairly represented some of the things you have experienced if it’s somewhat generalized. I have come close to posting this many times over the last few months, and talked myself out of it because I’ve felt like it isn’t my place. My intent is to build understanding among people to whom these ideas are a bit foreign.
How do we avoid being dismissive of others’ deeply held beliefs, experiences, or paradigms?
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