I’m not white but I get mistaken for white by people that I meet all the time. I have nothing against white people, obviously, but I don’t have any particular connection to stereotypical “white” stuff, like pumpkin lattes and John Mayer (not Jack Johnson), or even to stuff that white Americans are more genuinely culturally connected to, like entrepreneurship and the American flag.  By our country’s infamous one-drop rule I suppose I’m yellow, though I can’t say I feel myself to be very Asian either. In any case anyone who knows me even a little realizes that I’m nonwhite.

But what a boon to the Zanzibari clove industry this stuff must be.

The only excuse for drinking this weird stuff is wanting to support the Zanzibari clove industry.

That’s the main reason I no longer post my “political” opinions on Facebook. They’re not reaching the ones for whom it might matter anyway – white people who, consciously or unconsciously, are upholding white supremacy in this country. I even think it was harming because it reinforces the perception that this is an us vs. them issue.  By the same token I stopped posting about gender issues years ago because no matter what specific issue I brought up, some idiot would remind me that “I” didn’t have it so bad. As if the fact that my husband doesn’t beat me invalidates me drawing attention to the pervasive, horrifying reality of domestic abuse that so many other women face.

I’ve lost all credibility to a white racist, you see, by virtue of being a liberal person of color myself.

Black academics, possibly the best qualified to bear witness to the social toll of racism on our society, are ironically the least likely to make an impact on so-called white “conservatives,” because academia is already considered with deep suspicion to begin with by certain someones – it’s not useful, productive work like plumbing or construction, it’s getting paid to sit in a chair and think about stuff. On top of that these cushy-life professional daydreamers are just championing their own racial self-interest over ours, damnit! The problem is, we (anyone interested in dismantling racism) have to reach out to white racists. This is a revolution that might see a few battles on the institutional front, but ultimately it’s a psychological one. The long-term failure of every movement to secure equality for black and white Americans in the past lies in that they all blissfully ignored racism and only tried to fix its symptoms – slavery, segregation, hiring discrimination, etc.

... but feel free to discriminate in your personal lives, folks.

… but feel free to discriminate in your personal lives, folks.

I mentioned that when I paid attention to Facebook posts in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s and the Charleston church shooting (and similar divisive events) I noticed people posting almost exclusively for the benefit of like-minded friends, and precious few actual conversations that sprung up about either topic. The only exception to this was provided by a small number of white Facebookers. One of them was my friend Vanessa, a libertarian and lifelong lover of the NRA, who called out anti-black bias in no subtle terms. I think perhaps people engaged her thinking that they could sway her into seeing that she’s wrong about racism existing in any significant way, but they underestimated her conviction and knowledge on the issue and, hopefully, came away with even an iota of a different perspective on the whole matter.

My friend Jackie also posted about it:

“White privilege is feeling more fear when walking alone at night and seeing a black man, though statistically the white man is more likely to cause you harm as a solitary white female. This fear has been conditioned by virtue of growing up in a particular culture and with a biased media. Black individuals do get treated differently. Shutting our eyes and plugging our ears in denial, or worse, defending the status quo and discounting the everyday reality of half of the population is not going to make it go away, nor will it make it any less real. Can we all just come to terms with the fact that one can be white, not feel so privileged at all and still live in a world where white privilege exists? Only when we look at the problem directly, without defensiveness or fear for the preservation of our egos, can we do something about it.”

And there were quite a few other examples. Admittedly, most of them were written by suspect “liberal” academics, but it was heartening all the same. I think this is the only way forward. It would make me happy beyond belief to see more white friends who might not on the outside seem like they should feel passionately about racism speak out and raise consciousness about this problem, not angrily or accusingly but with respect and a desire for dialogue. Because I have to say that most white racists aren’t consciously so. It’s so ingrained in all of us that we don’t even think of it. Even Jesse Jackson admitted, with great shame, that “there is nothing more painful to [him] … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

Make no mistake. Race isn’t biological, but it’s very, very real. It’s been made real by our institutions, our media, our snowballing everyday prejudices, our actions, and our inactions. I am not white, as I said. I’m not rich and my parents were even born pretty poor, in other countries. None of my ancestors ever set foot on this continent before the 1970s. Still, I am responsible for American racism. I’ve benefited from it. I was silent about it. I’ve felt afraid of black men walking behind me on a street, as much as I hated myself for it.

I never thought of myself as a racist until I spent a year working in a department store in Upstate New York. Most of my coworkers were black women. Hanging out with them, I finally understood. It was crazy how much differently people looked at me when we walked together. It was crazy in the most horrific way possible what some of them dealt with in their daily lives. At the time, I was feeling sorry for myself because I had been suspended from college for marijuana possession, but my friends knew plenty of people who had gone to jail for the same. One of the women was very visibly pregnant and working her ass off to move into a suitable apartment and take care of her child. She took the bus to work in a town that had, to put it mildly, a puny public transportation system. Our managers always gave her shit for getting to work ten minutes late, even though they knew that her commute would’ve been two hours long instead of one if she tried to catch the earlier bus. I was so embarrassed that I’d ever complained about getting the ten-year-old family beater to drive when I turned sixteen. I was even more embarrassed when she actually got fired for chronic tardiness, literally a week after I (truthfully) called in sick from work for being too hungover. Then there was the time I sat in the back seat of a car being driven by another woman’s (also black) boyfriend while we were being followed by a police car forever. Anyone who thinks black men saying that they are “afraid of cops” is hyperbole should know that it’s not, even in the slightest, and with good reason.

Now that there are videos and white allies, more white people are finally starting to pay attention to the outrageous violence with which black men are treated, even while fleeing, but black people have been trying to get their attention about police brutality for years.

Fact: If Feiden Santana had witnessed Walter Scott's killing with only his eyes and not his cellphone, we wouldn't heard about it.

Imagine if Feiden Santana had witnessed Walter Scott’s killing with only his eyes and not his cellphone.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Working in the department store was what made racism real to me. I thank God for that. Studying our country’s history, deciding to go to grad school and write about historic race relations – that all happened after I realized how deep the wound was, not before. My personal bad experiences aside I would’ve gladly endured grad school to the bitter end if I thought getting my PhD would’ve in any way allowed me to change the hearts of other unconscious racists, who don’t have the blessing of getting suspended from college and coming face to face with their privilege. But the ivory tower is large and hollow, and its walls are thick.

Shouting it out, in person or on social media, isn’t going to make much of a difference, either. Not if I’m doing it. There are more and more people who definitely are raising those scary first doubts, though, even in the midst of an otherwise depressing mess of vitriol from all sides and deliberately incendiary commentary that seemingly gets worse day by day. That’s not necessarily promising, is it? But it’s something, and maybe the first step of our collective recovery is admitting that we have a problem.

Part one here! Part three coming up!

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