I Don’t Understand Racism

Before you make the judgement that I’m naive, simple, or straight up stupid, ask yourself this: Do you really understand racism? I’m not talking about what it is — we all know what it is; I’m talking about why and how racism exists. How it came into our world. Why it came into existence. Why and how a white European explorer encountered a black man and somehow came to the conclusion that an African man was less of a person than he was. Why and how that white explorer was able to turn off the part of his mind that feels empathy, compassion, and common sense and essentially dehumanize an entire race.

I genuinely keep wracking my brain and digging through history trying to figure out why this ludicrous idea was allowed to survive for so long and how it managed to infect our society with such violence and contempt. I don’t understand how that idea causes a feeling of prejudice to wash over me each time I see a black person — I don’t understand why it happens, and I sincerely hate the fact that it does. But what I hate even more is that the feeling exists in the first place.

There’s a lot of things you can blame the existence of racism on: greed, the media, privilege, and rank to name a few, but even those reasons don’t explain how an entire race was dehumanized and deemed inferior. It still doesn’t explain why racism has become such an integral part of our history and our society.

My mind continues to go back to the 17th Century, right around the time that slavery erupted. In all my research, there’s no single event that triggered the dehumanization of the African race and the horrible treatment of the enslaved population. All that history can tell me is that slavery suddenly became very popular — especially with the discovery of America and its settling. But history doesn’t tell me why it was suddenly ok to treat human beings as if they were worth nothing. The only explanation that I can find is that slaves were needed to help colonize America and they were “cheap labor.” Though the colonization of America was no easy task, I don’t understand how that justifies shoving hundreds of thousands of people beneath ship decks, refusing to feed them, and tossing them overboard when sickness started to spread. I don’t understand how that justifies dehumanizing an entire race. Surely, the colonization of America could have happened without the segregation and violence against African slaves…couldn’t it?

Slavery wasn’t a new idea back then. Slavery has existed throughout time. There have always been those who have had to work for the wealthy and there has always been an understanding that those at the bottom don’t get the same privileges as those on top — it’s been that way since the beginning of time. But what made the enslavement of millions of Africans different? Was it just because their skin was dark? Was it greed? Money? Opportunity? Was it the perfect combination of greedy, cold-hearted explorers meeting welcoming, trusting Africans that led to the defamation of the African race? Possibly. But that still doesn’t explain why the people with privilege were allowed to deny basic human rights to those who were, in their understanding, under privileged. Past instances of slavery, while bad, pale in comparison to the treatment of slaves during this time. So again, the question arises, what made this instance different?

Knowing all that I know about history, there’s no specific event that led to the onslaught of racism — it was a collection of events that happened throughout history that caused racism to become integrated into our society. But you can’t begin to understand racism in our society now, unless you understand the history of slavery as so much of racism stems from those practices.

Maybe there isn’t a way to understand racism — not completely anyway. Each explanation that you offer as to why racism exists, the question ‘why’ accompanies it. And most of those ‘why’s’ aren’t answered. The understanding of racism is left to you and whatever explanation you can give for it, but for me, it’s not enough — nor should it be enough for anyone else. As so many have said before me, in order to actually change something, you have to be able to understand it. But how are you able to bring about change in something you don’t completely understand? Where do you start? And how effective is that change going to be? And how are the people who refuse to understand that racism is an issue going to effect this?

So maybe I’ve only just begun to understand racism in it’s entirety, but I’m attempting to understand it. The explanations that I’ve been handed aren’t enough for me. And they shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be content with the high-level answers that are presented to us. There’s too much below the surface that is necessary to delve into before a true understanding can be had.

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