check yourself, my white friends

Since the late 80s, I’ve been working on and through my own racism. I’ve written about it on my own blog, before it was called a blog, and I’ve written about it in my newspaper column at the Bangor Daily News.

As the news coverage of the Department of Justice’s study of Ferguson continues, I’ve caught myself in old patterns of translating the facts. I invite my white friends to listen to your inner voices. We want racism to be not as bad as it is. We want that so much. So, to make it easier, when we hear shocking statistics we may translate them into less devastating facts. Maybe you don’t do it, but I know I have.

As I wrote in one of my BDN columns about racismthe one with deeply offensive thoughts as the first sentences—I think we well-meaning white people get so caught up in wanting to be not-racist that we aren’t able to engage in authentic relationships with people of color which means we can’t take or even support real action to change (institutionalized) racism.

Here’s the translation I’ve had to use over and over again as I listen to the news stories, using one statistic as an example:

news story: 93% of summons issued for jaywalking were issued to black people.

me: (for a millisecond) probably more black people jaywalked. maybe that’s something that happens more often in black neighborhoods and maybe there’s a non-racist reason why it’s considered such a bad thing.

me: *checks myself* the police are targeting black people for “crimes” and they are not targeting white people for the same “crimes.”

I’ve had to fix my thoughts again and again as I listen to the news. Each time I hear a statistic, my millisecond “please make this not as bad as it is” thought is louder and more easily detected. It flashes away faster, too.

Just like my work a decade ago getting beyond the “please consider me one of the GOOD white people” nonsense, the desire to have our racist systems be not as bad as they are leads me to an easy way out (hearing the statistic and thinking probably they deserved it).

Please consider reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, or listening to the audiobook, or simply listening to Michelle Alexander’s many public presentations. It is the knowledge of her work resting inside my gut that helps me face the ugly truth that I am still trying to avoid the ugly truth about racism in our country.

5 thoughts on “check yourself, my white friends

      • Ditto. Following Ferguson news for a few months (which led me to this book) revealed so much. I wished for a while I could go back to not knowing, but … that’s sacrificing others’ well being for my sense of comfort. That’s not what I want at all.

  1. I believe there is too much voluntary segregation. If you lived beside, or frequently associated with people of a different race, racism would be muted. But it may take generations and people that have to hate something won’t change. I gave 2 pints of blood to a black woman in 1956 and become an immediate outcast of the 60 people I worked with. 50 years later some have contacted me and said I did the right thing. 55 years ago I lived in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia. Sometimes I and my wife were the only whites around when we shopped or went to a movie. They were a very relaxed group, setting on their door steps during the summer talking, playing music. Self segregation made them feel safe? I never saw a cop while there. Later while in the army I worked with, played sports, and partied with blacks as well as other races. In Chicago in 1954 I was chased by a white gang wielding knives late at night, and by a black gang another night. Equal opportunity. It is my opinion that some people just have to put other people down to lift themselves up and blacks, or other races, are the target.

    • I appreciate your comments. I agree that segregation plays a significant role in racism’s continued strength. I know people who grew up in truly diverse communities — I mean truly diverse, where friendships, churches, intimate relationships, work, everything was really connected — who don’t have the same kind of relationship to racism that I do.

Leave a Reply