Just Between Us White Folks

Okay, not really just between us white folks. But I'm in the camp that says we whites need to be holding our own conversations, our own investigations of our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes about race.

White Guilt Doesn't Help

Yet I don't even know what language to use. A lot of ways of bringing this up can make us defensive, and if we're defensive we can't be open-minded.

Somewhere along the line I've lost my own defensiveness about looking at or admitting where our culturally-conditioned racial stereotypes are still affecting me, and I can call it racism. But a lot of us still hear that term and react defensively, since we have learned that racism is a bad thing. And, personally, I still find that referring to "white privilege" or "male privilege" makes me think that I'm in a position I don't deserve to be in, when I'm invited to acknowledge the long list of indignities I don't have to put up with, the things I can get away with, and matters that I take for granted that others can't. And when I feel guilty about it, the best I can do is acknowledge it intellectually, without really taking in and having care and empathy for those who are treated differently.

So I'm talking about a conversation where don't we guilt-trip ourselves.

Bridging the Psychological Distance

Language aside, the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict hit me surprisingly hard, and maybe cracked something open. It's only been a couple of months since my African-American friend Conrad told me about The Rules. Everyone raising a Black child, he said, has a conversation about The Rules at some point. Like how you must behave when a police car rolls up. "This is one of many ways that our experience is different from yours."

And I already knew many of the facts that Barack Obama referred to in his July 19 talk on the Florida case. My own blog posts and my forthcoming book about how we can take back our country talk about the epidemic of police shootings of minority people, what the War on Drugs does to black and other communities, and the gross racial disparities in sentencing of people convicted of crimes. I've heard people talk about what it feels like to be followed suspiciously in a store or have people cross the street to avoid you, and about studies that have proved that in certain areas, at least, people looking for housing are still treated differently depending on their races.

But we white folks get to choose how much of this we let in, how deeply it affects our hearts. We can hear someone's story, be moved, and then go back to dealing with it as some abstract notion of injustice. This past week, however, I could no longer choose. All it took was hearing a few black people talk about being afraid for their children's safety, or their feeling like Black people's lives just don't count for much in society as a whole. Something pierced my intellectualization of how bad things really still are around race, despite the progress which is surely being made. Intellectualization is a psychological defense that can work as well as denial for keeping us in our comfort zones, and loosing it is a challenging experience.

But I was also piercing my defenses myself. A fellow Californian posted on Facebook a powerful Daily Show piece skewering a Florida legal system in which the Zimmerman verdict could be the outcome, along with his own comment that he knows one good person in Florida. My comment:

I'm upset, too, but I don't know that we residents of the state that invented Three Strikes, has 33 prisons and counting, keeps people in solitary for decades based on the literature they read, and that has one prisoner die every seven days for lack of health care [52 Trayvon Martins a year], should be throwing stones from our glass house.

How do we tolerate the treating of fellow humans this way, the brothers and sisters and children of the people who either work along side us or ring up our purchases and clean our workplaces and police our communities and staff our offices, along with the shootings and stops-and-frisks that affect even professionals and business people who are not white; the poverty; and, yes, the everyday indignities, except by separating ourselves from others, seeing them as different, not the same human material?

Whose Young People Are at Risk?

This week I heard African-American speakers talk about the safety of "our young people." In the past, I heard that phrase as referring to that community's young people. Maybe by next month I will again. For now, however, I still hear it referring to black and brown youth, but I somehow fell into the "we." They are my young people, too. When I see them in the street, I see them as sensitive, unique souls. They're our young people—all of our young people—and I don't want harm to come to them. Even the ones who dress or walk in ways that two weeks ago triggered in my mind stereotypes about who they were, what they were about, stereotypes that would distance me from them, keep me from really caring about them.

I'm typing this in a public place, and some of the adults around me are black. As I imagine how all this may be hitting them, I feel sadness and empathy as well. I like having my heart more open, feeling more connected, but it's also uncomfortable in a certain way.

So I guess this is a little different than the "white privilege" stuff. I intend to do more of my own work around that, too, going to the places that promote that conversation and sensitize us to our fears and stereotypes and biases. But there's also something about this dimension of opening the heart, seeing our own kind in others, looking past the skin and hair and whatever, into the eyes, through to the souls. And if we attend to that, or allow it to happen, surely we will let in the truth of how badly racism hurts our brothers and sisters—racism that we never chose to perpetuate but is still part of the air we breathe and the institutions our society has built—and we will want, really want, to change it, in all its manifestations.