Am I, a white woman, qualified to talk about race in America?
When I was invited to speak to a Jewish congregation in Westchester, NY for their Martin Luther King Jr. shabbat about why black and brown Americans have been marching in the streets these past few years, I initially struggled with whether I was the right person to give this talk.
In the end, I accepted because I have come to believe that it is my responsibility to talk about race at least partially through talking about whiteness, and the work that we white people must do to dismantle racism.
When I was preparing my first talk on white privilege a few years ago, a black work colleague and I met to discuss the topic.
I will never forget my feeling of total ignorance when she shared: “If my white friends knew how many times every day I think about race, they would think I was crazy.”
Nearly every black person I have checked in with agrees with her statement.
I have learned that if you are white, no matter how much you learn or you think you know about what it is like to be black or brown in America today, you can never know.
To help white people understand this, the Chicago Theological Seminary came out with a very short video last year called “White Privilege Glasses.”
In my experience, most white people find the video educational. Some wonder if there are ways in which the video exaggerates the truth. But I have yet to watch this video with a black or brown person and not have them nod along and offer corroborating stories afterwards. And this is regardless of their education level, geographic location, social class and status, or political party.
In his unscheduled remarks delivered directly after George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013, President Obama explains:
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
He then uses the power of his pulpit to ask white Americans to open their eyes to how fundamentally differently African-Americans often see the world, including this verdict, because of America’s racist past:
“I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away. … And, you know, I — I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
The President lists among his own past experiences hearing car doors lock when he crossed the street and being followed when he shopped in department stores.
This brings me to my second point. Although I, as a white person, will never be fully able to grasp or describe racism in America today, I can tell you this much based on studying racism for the past year:
Racism in America today is widespread and deeply-rooted in our country’s unproud history of racism. And most white Americans, no matter how well-intentioned, contribute to it through largely ignoring the problem.
By racism, I do not just mean individual and intentional acts of hatred and bigotry. I also mean systemic, built-in disadvantages that black people as a group still face in America.
I like the educational video “The Unequal Opportunity Race” because it visually demonstrates not only the many obstacles racism still erects today but also the link between the present and America’s racist past. I first learned about the video in a Washington Post article entitled “Parents outraged after students shown ‘white guilt’ cartoon for Black History Month.”
In the beginning of the video, the white racers lap the racers of color multiple times before the racers of color are allowed to start racing. A series of words flash across the screen, beginning with “Slavery” and “Dred Scott.” Soon we watch an older white runner pass down wealth in the form of a baton to a young white runner who appears to be his son, giving this white runner another lap of advantage in the race before the racers of color can begin. At this point, the words “Wealth Disparities” appear.
Where do these wealth disparities come from? In an article entitled “How the GI Bill Left out African Americans,” the think tank Demos provides an excellent illustration of how America’s racist past has contributed to today’s wealth disparities.
At the same time as the much-celebrated 1944 GI bill helped “millions of returning veterans go to college and buy homes in the great postwar suburban land rush,” the article explains:
“black veterans weren’t able to make use of the housing provisions of the GI Bill for the most part. Banks generally wouldn’t make loans for mortgages in black neighborhoods, and African-Americans were excluded from the suburbs by a combination of deed covenants and informal racism.”
How does this connect to wealth disparities today?
“[F]amily wealth can take generations to build ― and confers advantages that grow over time. If your great-grandparents bought a home, chances are that your grandparents inherited at least some wealth from them. Which maybe means that your parents didn’t have to take out loans to go to college and got a helping hand with a down payment for a house early in life in a neighborhood with top schools. Which means that you got a great public education instead of a lousy one, allowing you to get into a good college and set yourself up to confer advantages on your own kids. And so on.”
This explanation does not negate the importance or contribution of hard work. Instead, it illuminates the advantage that many white families in America had, and still have, over families of color in passing down wealth to next generations, and the concrete benefits that result even generations later.
Like President Obama said, black people in America have a set of experiences and a history that “doesn’t go away.”
Even though white people are aware on some level of racism’s continued grip on our country, most of us are complacent.
Educator Jane Elliott famously demonstrates this when she asks white audiences the following:
“If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society - please stand! … Nobody is standing here. … [Y]ou know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”
Take Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s announced move to NBC for an alleged salary of $20 million. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, many of us gave Kelly credit for asking Trump during the first Republican debate about his many derogatory comments against women and for calling out Roger Ailes in her new book for sexually harassing her early on in her career. But white Americans seem to give her a total pass, as does NBC apparently, on her many documented racist statements. Like using her air time to reassure all the kids watching at home that Santa Claus really is white. Or accusing Michelle Obama of being part of a “culture of victimization” because she included in her commencement address to an all-black high school on the South Side of Chicago, where she grew up, an acknowledgment of some of the systemic challenges they were facing.
With all of this in mind, let’s think about the protests the synagogue originally asked me to discuss. The ones we heard about or maybe even witnessed in person or on television over the past few years. The ones where “Black Lives Matter” was chanted and large numbers of black and brown Americans turned up.
Let’s think about these protests understanding that white people cannot know what it is really like being a person of color in America. And let’s think about these protests understanding both the deep roots of racism in our country and the connected and widespread presence of it today. Finally, let’s think about these protests remembering how often white Americans ignore the problem. Can we not understand the desire for black and brown people to come together and say enough?
Here is one of the most interesting things about many white people’s reactions to Black Lives Matter protests. We tend to view them as attacks against us, and to be offended by how unwelcome we feel.
What if, though, white people stopped centering ourselves long enough to understand that the Black Lives Matter Movement, sometimes called the Movement for Black Lives, is more intended for black people than white people? That this Movement centers black lives and demands accountability for the injustices committed against black people, whether by law enforcement or otherwise, because black people have not been treated equally and fairly in America. That it is also “unapologetically black” because, as the Black Lives Matter website says, “to love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others”?
When I called one of my close high school friends, who is black and a professor and teaches African American culture among other things, and asked her for her thoughts about race in America today, here is what she told me: “White people think that black people want to come with their guns and kill them, but we don’t want that at all. What we want is our humanity back. We want to feel and be recognized as fully human.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood so many fundamental truths, but among them was the counterpart to my friend’s statement— that racism also costs white people our humanity.
“The possibility that he might someday be assassinated was considered by Dr. King on June 5, 1964, when he reported, in St. Augustine, Fla., that his life had been threatened. He said: ‘Well, if physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.’”
My hope this Martin Luther King Jr. Day is that white Americans awaken to how much we cannot see about our country’s racism, bring this “woke” spirit to our daily interactions, and follow the lead of black and brown led organizations in seeking racial justice. As Dr. King understood inherently, this is the path to our collective liberation.
A version of this post was originally given at Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester for their Isaac Memorial Social Justice Shabbat in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.