This is the second in a weeklong guest series on race. If you missed yesterday’s post, head here to read it.
Today’s post comes from C. G. Brown. I’m excited for you to read his words because, A. He’s brilliant & B. He’s a man and there’s far too much estrogen on the internet sometimes.
First, thanks Lindsy for inviting me to share your space. The work of dismantling our country’s flawed views on race is hard, and requires many voices. I’m glad to have yours, and to have the opportunity to share mine.
I’d like to set a couple of ground rules before we begin. First, we will assume that “systemic racism” exists. By systemic racism I mean a framework that enforces rules and mores that benefit one racial group over another without any single individual being required to make a blatantly racist choice. For many, even this concession is a bridge too far, but I’ll talk a bit more about why this matters later. Second, I will use the terms “white people” and “black people” to refer to Americans who are of European immigrant descent and African slave descent (or people who look like either group) respectively. No capital letters, no conversation about the made-up-ness of the whole mess.
The past several years have given the lie to the belief that race is a problem that is behind us. We in America come from vastly different perspectives on the issue, but from the language used to describe people on opposite sides of a bullet to the opinions formed on sparse or false information, it’s obvious that we’re not seeing clearly.
A number of white people are interested in dismantling structures that keep us apart and promulgate injustice. As my friend Judy Wu Dominick has pointed out though, the revelation that systemic racism is a real thing can be a traumatic, identity challenging event for white people. That trauma can be so difficult to process it leaves those who awaken to it in a sort of “analysis paralysis”, liking friends’ Facebook posts or tweets, but unsure of how to act. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to suggest some action items for white people who want to do more, but don’t know where to begin.
- Believe what black people tell you about their experience.
Your friend that you went to college with. Your co-worker. Your fellow church attendee, if you attend one of the relatively rare multicultural churches out there. The more similar experience someone black has had to yours, the harder it may be for you to believe that they lived in a parallel world with challenges you never even contemplated. However, this belief is the cornerstone of coming to an understanding of how to respond to issues of race.
2-5. Seriously, believe them.
Your instinct will be to not believe. You’ll seek facts and figures to bolster your old view. You’ll tell them that they must have been imagining. If you’re particularly irritated, you might tell them they’ve been listening to too much Al Sharpton or liberal media. When you say that though, think about what you’re really saying.
You don’t know your own mind.
You’re making up an experience to feel like a victim so you can get special treatment.
You can’t come up with your own perspective, so you need the media to teach it to you.
How would you feel if someone said these things in response to some experience you had? So assume they’re telling the truth, at least their truth.
- It’s not your fault, and it’s not about you.
It’s important to separate your demographic experience from your personal experience. The trauma of recognizing systemic injustice arrives in two common forms: shame and resentment. Shame tells you that you’re an awful person and you should wallow in despair for the subconscious wrongs you’ve done. Resentment bristles you up and tells you that you shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for the actions of others, especially people who died before you were born.
Both of these are wrong. It’s not your fault that racism exists, but it’s not about you either. Shamefully despairing over bad choices or hardening your heart in resentment makes the entire issue of the ongoing oppression of millions of people an issue of your personal feelings. Instead, take a learning posture. And if you’ve followed steps 1-5, people will have lots to tell you.
- Confront your friends when they say racist things.
I know this is hard because I think about how hard it is for me to confront my friends (or myself) about anti-gay or anti-woman comments. But letting racist comments slip by creates a climate of indifference that lets evil flourish.
Once you’ve had some practice reining your friends in, take on some big game; talk to your family when they say things. Of course, you can use some discretion here; there’s the old uncle who rants about everything and doesn’t listen, and he’s probably not worth your time. But your parents, siblings, cousins, and more receptive elders may benefit from some real talk.
- Seek to serve rather than to lead.
A significant number of aspects of our culture tell us that white voices are the most important and must be heard, even at the expense of black voices. We see this frequently in media. For instance, the movie Selma came under fire for not portraying a heroic LBJ, even though the president’s portrayal was consistent with history. People were infuriated that a Rue, a fictional character from The Hunger Games, was portrayed by a black person, because she was important and likable.
Where this plays out is when we have dialogue about how to proceed. Your instinct may be to take your newly synthesized knowledge and take over the conversation, even going as far as educating the black people who don’t have the same conviction or who haven’t done as much research as you. Your voice does have a lot of weight, but direct that voice outward toward people who truly don’t understand. It’s tempting to see disenfranchised communities as in desperate need of guidance or assistance, but a helping hand doesn’t always come from on high. Sometimes, it’s just another laborer for the harvest.
- Recognize the intersectionality of the battle.
Each of us comes from a nexus of privileges and disadvantages that leaves us in a certain place on the playing field. Race is significant, all the more so because we refuse to deal with it in this country. But gender, sexuality, and class all feed into each other and into race as well. In some circles, a well-educated, well-off black person may be viewed as a more desirable friend than a poorly-educated, poor white person. However, racial biases may still add tension into that preferred friendship.
Understanding intersectionality will also help you get over the problems outlined in step 6. Many white people object to the notion of racial injustice because they say, “I grew up poor and I had to fight for everything I got!” Through an intersectional lens, it’s possible to simultaneously recognize the privilege you experienced as white while recognizing the disadvantages you had growing up poor. This works in other directions as well; I realize that growing up with two loving parents in an all black middle class neighborhood gave me privileges people of various races with different adjectives before “parents” and “neighborhood” didn’t have. At the same time, when I walk down the street, people don’t see my upbringing or education first.
I hope that you find these thoughts useful as you take this burden you feel to pursue justice with humility and grace. You are most welcome in this fight.
C. G. Brown is too lazy to keep a blog. But he does think a lot about current events, racial reconciliation, and technology. He makes a living by writing and helping people manage software. He makes a life with his wife, friends, and occasional musical instruments in Atlanta. You can follow his musings at http://www.facebook.com/cgbrown or occasionally on Twitter at @brokenbeatnik.