Do America’s White People Have to Do Better?
I am a white American
In 1966 my father talked about the South American country in which he was born, Suriname, to my sixth grade class in Pasadena, Calif. He said it didn’t matter about people’s color. “In my homeland, a man whose skin is as dark as this blackboard,” as his white hand tapped the one behind him, “would be treated like any other.”
I remembered Dad’s statement, for in my mind, he had never before mentioned race. Such controversy had yet to figure into that naïve, cloistered bedroom community in which I grew up. He spoke to a room of almost all white suburban kids. I’d like to believe that the few with darker skin were as readily accepted as I was. Names like Kadota, Santos and Lopez, at least in my mind, connected with a math whiz, sixth-grade baseball star and school vice president. I know my perceptions at Frances E. Willard Elementary reflected my experiences to that date and not necessarily the norm in that decade nor especially this.
Racial unrest in Milwaukee has headlined the news. The shooting of a black man by a black police officer exploded years of economic disparity in a city that is racially segregated and knows it.
The city’s residents wait for the video tapes to be released pending the authorities’ investigation. Meanwhile, a few remedial actions are taking place:
- Media coverage: The local newspaper has featured front-page photographs of African Americans in the workplace, as if to say, “Yes, it happens, and it can happen more.”
- Government: The governor, mayor, and county executive announced $4.5 million would be thrown at economic development in this area.
- Community: people in all parts of Milwaukee are talking whether in churches or government offices or living rooms or blogs.
Good. We need to begin the leadership and community participation to solve these problems.
Jodi Melamed, a professor in the Department of English and Program in Africana Studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee wrote in the local Journal Sentinel:
As a white resident of Milwaukee for 12 years and a professor who teaches about race and ethnicity at Marquette University, I have witnessed time and again the tendency of white Milwaukeeans to treat the city’s crisis of race and impoverishment as a natural occurrence. In my classes, white students are quick to recognize racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, and food deserts as hallmarks of oppression, but slow to note that where there is oppression, there are oppressors, or at least complacency with an oppressive status quo.
Why is it so hard for white Milwaukeeans (and white people in general) to recognize segregation, mass incarceration, failing schools and joblessness as the inevitable outcome of our decisions? How can we fail to see that such “problems” will inevitably come to pass when we remove ourselves and our tax dollars to white enclaves, decide to foster a prison industry rather than demand government responsibility for job creation, and stop caring about “other” people’s children?
I drank coffee with a friend from central Africa this morning. We met not far from my house in Pewaukee, an enclave in which 96% of the population is white. We talked about her life in the US for the last 20 years. She “thanked God,” for her family’s opportunities and its accomplishments here in the states. She has raised four children, three of whom have finished college and have good jobs. With her husband, their hard work hard has rewarded them with a beautiful home.
She also noted the negatives:
- the experiences of her daughter, the only black girl in a midwestern elementary school;
- the comments neighbors had hurled at her family as they looked to buy a house in a middle-class white suburban neighborhood; and
- the attitude toward her husband by his employers, indirectly chastizing him because of his differences from the rest of the staff.
She and I didn’t use the word “racism” in our conversation; it wasn’t necessary. We both knew.
It’s one thing for us white Americans to talk about believing in racial equality and another to really live it. We humans so often go where it’s easiest, where it’s familiar. How does one step across that clearly marked line of segregation and say, “I’m not going to be a part of it anymore.”
Behavioral change requires thought, determination, action, and consistency. It takes venturing outside one’s comfort zone: to recognize the black person standing in front of me is more similar than different from me. To understand, like me, she doesn’t want her family to live in an unsafe neighborhood. To empathize with her when the color of her skin makes people act differently towards her.
If we white Americans don’t exemplify the true equality on which this great country was founded, how are we gonna change that?
Do you have an answer to how we should effect the change necessary for racial equality? Do step outside your comfort zone and say what you’re thinking (anonymous answers welcome).
Your thoughts and opinion are always welcome by scrolling down or emailing email@example.com.
Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist, story-teller, and author of “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.
Copyright @2016: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.