Remember the Titans? The movie starring Denzel Washington about the high school in Alexandria, Virginia that went through a painful integration process then won the state football championship with its racially integrated team? Those Titans.
That was my high school. I was one of the "mighty Titans." Despite this, I've mostly been an ignorant white coward. My time at TC Williams High School came just a few years after integration, and whites were a numeric minority. I was surrounded by black kids, with black slang ringing in my ears so much that I even think in it sometimes. My classmates were a diverse lot and my brothers and sisters on our integrated track team were like family.
I thought at the time that I had a pretty good window on the black experience. But, decades later, I am learning with great humility that I will never know what it is to experience being black in America.
Being Jewish, I thought I knew what it felt like to be marginalized, and by extension, what it must feel like to be black. How wrong I was. Year after year, I experienced the isolation of being the only Jewish kid from an observant family in my class, in an environment where no one had ever even heard of our major holidays, let alone the minor ones. And I missed school for all of them, sometimes so many that my grades suffered. I always lied and told other kids I was sick because I knew they would never understand. Even so, little did I realize that I still had the advantages that go with white skin.
I had no understanding of institutional racism until the past year. My understanding was turned upside down by Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Unbelievably, I never knew about federal redlining laws, prohibiting people from getting mortgages in black parts of town, creating urban blight and depriving black families of the route to accumulate wealth through real estate equity that white families take for granted. This was never taught to me in high school or even college. And while I knew that black men are massively incarcerated compared to whites, I never knew this phenomenon is a product the War on Drugs, although blacks and whites use drugs nearly equally.
In the year or so that has brought us Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ferguson, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, the Charleston massacre, the Confederate Flag removal, I am haunted by my own silence. At a holiday dinner last year, racist jokes and comments were made, and nearly every time, I said NOTHING. I promoted racism by permitting it to go unchecked.
I'm guessing the tellers of the comments and jokes would describe themselves with that familiar refrain, "I'm not racist," and truly believe it. I doubt any of them even saw their comments in a racist light, which is precisely the problem. Indeed, had I said outright that a comment was racist, I likely would have shut down any thoughtful conversation, poisoned the holiday atmosphere and risked severing relationships. "Millions of Black lives are valued less than a single White person's hurt feelings," said John Metta, in his powerful essay "I, Racist."
Yet, not a day goes by when I do not regret my silence at that dinner. What should I have said? What should I have done? Should I have walked out and left? I have thought long and hard about this.
Then it clicked for me when I watched the fired official from the Ferguson police department explain why she forwarded emails with racist jokes. "I'm not racist. I didn't mean any harm to anyone. They were just funny jokes." I had read those jokes. They were not the least bit funny to me. They made me angry and sick to my stomach. That's when I realized what racism actually looks like: the 'jokes' are only funny to you if you buy into the racist stereotypes and degradation.
So now I know how I would respond next time, instead of sitting silent. I would ask questions. "Why do you find that funny? I don't understand. Can you explain?" In explaining, maybe the teller would see they are acting on a ridiculous premise. If not, at least I can respond to call their stereotype into question.
Calling out a racist comment is only a small move out of cowardice. What about the organizations I'm in which have little diversity? The boards I serve on that are all white? I need to change that, too. I have realized that the voices of color must be heard. When I have been on a board when they have been present, the organization has fundamentally changed. So I am stepping aside, and making room for those voices. There is so much more I must do. It is hard.
I now know I can never walk in the shoes of African Americans, but I cannot live with myself if I sit silent any longer. There might be hurt feelings. But people are dying, unjust and brutal deaths, having their lives and livelihoods and futures stolen from them. I cannot stand by while that happens. Not as I live and breathe in this white skin.