As someone who does a lot of signal boosting re #BlackLivesMatter and the We Need Diverse Books initiative, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the reactions of my close friends and neighbors. “I don’t see race,” sums up a lot of them. “I don’t think issue X is really about race,” say a lot of others. In a normally quite empathetic group of people, this one blind spot is distressing. Worst are those who harp on immigration issues when the real problem is that they’re afraid to communicate with their Hispanic neighbors–but I’m not here to talk about them today.
It’s a writer’s job to see beneath the skin (whatever color it may be), to figure out how people tick so we can write believable characters. I’ve established a lexicon for translating these common responses to diversity issues into plain English. Here are a few.
“I don’t see race.” Translation: “Didn’t we do away with segregation back before I was born? Why are we still talking about this?”
“I don’t think issue X is really about race.” Translation: “But I’m not a racist. How can this be about race when I’m part of the system propagating this problem?” (There are other problems with this one, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
“#AllLivesMatter” Translation: “I’m suffering too. Why did nobody talk about this issue until it happened to a black family?”
“#NotAllMen” Translation: “I’m doing my part, so please stop attacking me.”
To readers of color (and all who find yourselves offended): Please forgive them. These people haven’t yet awakened to the reality that there are still racists among them. Racist people know their opinions are unpopular right now. They hide, they wait until nobody’s watching, or until they can spin their racist agenda as some other social or political issue. They gather people around themselves who share their ideals, secretly, until they reach such a critical mass that they’re no longer afraid to reveal their racism for what it is.
At that point it’s easy for those of the majority who disagree to stand back, distance themselves from the perpetrators. Before that, it’s like a black finger pointing at a sea of white faces, crying “There! There’s the racist!” The crowd says, “Is he pointing at me? At my friend? How could he say that about us?” While the racist, smug and secure in his anonymity, feigns indignation. When the count comes back, no one revealing himself, the crowd is convinced that the accuser was mistaken.
It gets easier to believe there’s a problem when the finger of accusation belongs to a member of the majority. People and organizations get called out for this, but there’s a psychological effect, a credibility that comes when the person accusing you has stepped out from among your own circle to turn around and point that finger. Why? Because in stepping forward, that person is claiming partial responsibility for the presence of that racist in their midst. They’re saying, “I knew he was there, but I didn’t speak until now,” or “I didn’t notice him before, but there he is.” That’s when the members of that majority are more likely to turn inward with self-examination and ask, “Is it me?”
This isn’t always the case, of course. Majority members still have their witness discounted as incredible–it happens to me all the time. What’s to be done, when you’re a member of the majority pointing that finger, but still nobody listens?
Before, I mentioned critical mass. Maybe one finger isn’t enough. But the more we join together, signal boosting and calling people out when they cross the line, the fewer faces that pretender has to hide behind.
Last night I read an impassioned article from a woman of color who works in a professional environment. She expressed a keen and constant awareness of the color of her skin–not only that she was different, but that she was representative of everyone different, even those who didn’t identify as the same minority. It’s a constant problem in a nation where we aren’t really as integrated as we think we are.
This works both ways–when you’re the majority and accusations of racism are flying, you’re hyper-aware of any interactions you have with that oppressed minority. Do you say hi to the black-as-black stranger in the grocery store, to show that you’re not racist? Or is he tired of the constant reminders that he’s different, and would silence be the better option? Omigosh, he’s standing behind me. Does my body language make it seem like I’m trying to pretend he isn’t there?
One thing we often forget, even when championing the cause of equality, is that we’re all human–by which I mean we all make the same mistakes. We all have the same fears. The hyper-awareness, the feeling that everyone’s watching–we all get that at some point. We also get the reverse, when it feels like you’re just a color, invisible in a sea of faces that look just like yours, afraid that your individual voice won’t be heard. Some of us experience one more than the other, but we can and should relate with those who feel the opposite. We often forget, put up this dividing line that says, “They don’t understand what it’s like to be me,” when what we should be saying is, “What can I do to understand what it’s like for them?”
Cross that line. If you’re white, consider how it feels to have your deepest concerns brushed away as unimportant. Understand that there are parts of this country where black people fear for their lives whenever they walk out their front door. Where those who can pass as white do, and are ashamed to identify with their cultural heritage. Recognize that our criminal justice system incarcerates an obscenely skewed proportion of African-American citizens, breaking up families and propagating any real or imagined social problems which exist within their neighborhoods. Most importantly, realize that bias exists, naturally and artificially created, and that it takes awareness and education to rid ourselves of it.
If you identify as a person of color, you need to cross over that line as well, and not make it thicker. Hashtags like #WhitePeopleBeLike only serve to alienate those who are trying to see things from your perspective. Annual reminders that George Washington or Christopher Columbus owned slaves in an era when it was not considered morally reprehensible to do so–even in the enslaved cultures themselves–are not helping. Neither are accusations that someone’s ancestors were murderers and rapists when there’s nothing they can do about it if they were, and the majority of them probably weren’t.
We’re on the same side here. We all want things to be equal and fair, but we sometimes forget that we can grant equality and fairness to others without losing hold of it ourselves. You can share someone else’s opinion without danger that yours is less likely to be heard. Be less quick to cry ‘cultural appropriation!’ and more willing to be grateful for the ways in which other cultures have benefited your own.
And above all, listen.