In talking to Jonathan the other day about a person he had not met I indicated she was a person of color, African American to be precise.
Then, I realized I had done it again. Earlier, in the same conversation, I spoke of another person he had not met, who is not a person of color, but in that instance I did not mention that fact. I felt no need to describe what is essentially the default position. Among people who label ourselves white, we assume that our racialized identity is the norm. We don’t have to specifiy skin color, it is assumed to be ours.
This is often called “white privilege”–the unearned status to be, and to assume to be, the norm.
This came back to me as I watched an excellent film about racism on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. “Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity” is a 75-minute film intended to lay out the various components of the system that put in place, and keeps in place, racial inequality.
The film has enough didactic material to help the viewer understand the structural elements, and enough personal story-telling and commentary by a wide variety of individuals to give it depth and make it interesting and lively. The audience, mostly people who call ourselves white, at the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt–part of the monthly social justice oriented monthly series, Meal & Reel at the New Deal, sponsored by an alliance of activist groups– was appreciative of the film.
There was discussion, too. And that is where I noticed how the people of color in the room were much more ready to talk. Some who call ourselves white did talk, though a disproportionately small share (in terms of the ratio of attendees who were not people of color).
Of course, the people of color had interesting, insightful, and important things to say. I am glad they spoke.
What disturbs me, however, is how we who call ourselves white talk so little about race and racism. Even more, most of the time (as was true at the film-showing Monday night), when we do talk it seems to be about a time we noticed some other person who looks like us acting unjustly toward a person of color (and occasionally that includes our speaking up to object) or a time we realized the deleterious effects of racism on a person or persons of color.
What we do not do is to talk about our own racism, our own learned attitudes and behaviors, our own complicity in maintaining systemic structures of racialized inequity. Partly this is due to the fact that the structures are hard to see. They are designed to work without our having to make any conscious choices. That is one reason it is called privilege–it is an accident of birth that goes with us throughout life. Membership has its privileges.
But that does not let us off the hook.
If we want racial justice, if we want a beloved community where all thrive–and I believe the overwhelming proportion of us who call ourselves white very much want that–we are going to have to get confessional. We will not overcome systemic racial inequities until we do the hard work of being open and honest about what we feel and what is at work in us. When we do that, we can change ourselves, and help others change, too. That is how the nation will really change, from the ground up. We can undo the white privilege that undergirds racialized inequity.
For me, to start, I am going to really work at monitoring my speech patterns, and though patterns, too, to find out how I create my identity as a person I and others call white as the norm, and thus how many times and ways I replicate the model of racialized social domination in my daily patterns of living.
And I am going to write about it, and I am going to tell others. I am committed to breaking the codes by breaking the silence.
What about you? Where will you start? Feel free to write me here, with your ideas and personal commitments.