Why Don't White People Believe People of Color About Racism?

This is a Black Lives Matter Banner in Charlotte, NC, November 2015. Camera - Canon 7D Mark II, Lens - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS
This is a Black Lives Matter Banner in Charlotte, NC, November 2015. Camera - Canon 7D Mark II, Lens - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM

After the tragic police shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, some white people fell into a typical offensive behavior pattern. Despite damning video evidence, they want to know more about the story. They insist that if black people only behaved a certain way, and taught their children to do the same, they wouldn't have to worry about being killed by police. 

There are countless studies and facts and figures to substantiate the pattern of racist violence by police. But aside from that, people of color have been telling us for months, years, decades, generations about their experience of racism in this country. Technology and social media have allowed that experience to be captured in heart wrenching videos and broadcast around the world. When white people twist themselves in knots trying to find some explanation other than race for these tragedies, they are saying that every one of these people of color are lying. They're delusional. There's some vast conspiracy to try to pull the wool over our eyes and attribute actions to non-existent racism rather than personal and communal failings. It's a painful erasure of a legacy of racism that you have to be willfully ignorant to disbelieve.

So why do so many white people scramble for some other explanation in the face of so much evidence, and so much pain? Some are probably hard core racists whose views aren't likely to change. But some are contorting themselves to avoid coming to terms with their place in a racist system. Acknowledging an unfair and racist culture threatens the American dream that most white people are taught to revere. If you work hard, you can achieve anything. If you follow the law and respect law enforcement, you won't have any problems. If you are successful, it is because of your own ingenuity and effort, not because you have had advantages handed to you from birth. If someone fails to reach that level of achievement, it's their fault and they're not as deserving as you are. Confronting our country's legacy and ongoing state of racism involves realizing that the viewpoint you've had throughout your life is false, and that you have been aided by countless advantages that you were never forced to recognize or wrestle with.

Facing the prevalent racism in our society also means looking at not just how we benefit from the system, but how we perpetuate it. Maybe we haven't only benefited from a white privilege; we've also absorbed the racism we were taught growing up in a culture steeped in white supremacy. We want to believe that's not us. In a recent speech when Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump's supporters as belonging in a "basket of deplorables," you can hear laughter and cheers in the audience as they mock those "other" people. But as a recent episode of On the Media pointed out, polls that confirm the deplorable views of Trump supporters also show that 30% of Clinton supporters think black people are lazier and more violent than white people. We've grown up hearing politicians and public figures condemn the black community for criminal tendencies and deviant lifestyles. Often the only black people we've seen on TV and in movies fit right in with those stereotypes. That knee jerk reaction a white person has to demand more information or search for an excuse for a cop killing a black person is rooted in these stereotypes that have nestled in our brains through years of indoctrination. Some white people find it easier to keep their worldview in tact and cast around for another explanation, even when evidence shows that black people can be killed by police or racist vigilantes no matter what they do.

Owning up to our racist system and our place in it can be uncomfortable, even painful. But the pain of reckoning with that complicity is nothing like the pain of losing a son, losing a sister, worrying every day that your child may not come home safe. To reiterate the phrase on the protest sign, black lives matter more than white feelings. People are dying, and denial or silence only further our complicity. We can't erase the lived experiences of people of color, or sit back and claim that this isn't our fight. Listen to people of color, believe them, learn about the context for these incidents. Then speak up, and push back when other white people are making specious arguments in an attempt to bury a much-needed reckoning with the racism inherent in our system and impede the actions we need to change it.