Get Uncomfortable

I am a white male living in America. And we are going to talk about race.

Based on the title of this blog, that may not make you feel more comfortable. I’m sorry, but it’s time for that. It’s time we got uncomfortable. And when I say we, I mean “white people”.

There? Did you feel it? A twinge in your stomach when you read the phrase “white people”. I’ll bet something similar flows over you see when you see this next phrase: “Black People.”

Yep, it’s uncomfortable for us to talk about things in terms of race. But it’s needed.

Note: If you are black and you’re reading this, then… Welcome! Read on, please call me out on any bullshit you see.

See you and I, we exist in a country created and inhabited by people who believed fundamentally that white people were superior. And this belief system has been built into every aspect of our culture in the form of a feeling of superiority over black people and a fear of black men. It’s so ingrained our daily lives, the way we feel think and act, that maybe even as you read this you can feel your lips curling up in skepticism.

If so, then you’re the one I’m writing to. Maybe you’re someone who strives to treat everyone equal, and see people as the same. Who wishes we could just “get past” race, to get to a state where we don’t have to be so careful with our words, where race didn’t matter so damn much. Where we can just be comfortable.

I’m sorry to tell you this, but it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. IF it gets better.

In the last few years I have come to understand that there is a world that’s underneath the surface of our own. A world that we as white people can not see intuitively. A world if someone else told us of we wouldn’t believe was actually real. And once you see it, you can never go back.

So basically it’s like the Matrix. Except your black friend can not give you a pill to help you see it.

This is a world where black people are constantly bombarded on all fronts by messages declaring their lack of worth. Sometimes it’s from Fox News, sometimes it’s from politicians, sometimes it’s from someone they consider their friend. Sometimes it’s from you.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to call you a racist. In fact I suggest we abandon the word “racist”, because any word that can be manipulated to describe the most fowl mouthed bigots in the world AND also the Black Lives Matter movement has zero descriptive value.

Instead, I’d like you to consider that you may have unconscious biases against black people which occasionally affect how you think and act without you knowing about it. Without “meaning” anything by it.

This is hard, because we’ve spent most of our lives with the comforting belief that being a good person and being careful about what we say will relieve us of ever having to deal with race. But it’s not so, and whether or not we choose to see how our culture and we personally perpetuate the notion of white superiority, the damage is still made.

Now I don’t know anything about you, so I can’t show you where this bias shows up in your life, heck maybe you’re a rare person who has absolutely no bias whatsoever. But before you jump to that assumption, please consider this:

American history is composed of 80% legal discrimination against black people and after that, 20% of other kinds of discrimination against black people, so if you were able to escape having biases planted in your brain I have a question for you: …Really??

A little about myself. I grew up in a liberal family with parents who taught me to treat everyone with respect regardless of class or race. I grew up in a small town with 96.7% white people, then moved to Philadelphia where I began to have a more diverse group of friends. Now I live in a city with a majority black population and with great effort and intention have made sure to get outside the “bubble” that pervades every major city. (Translation: I hang out with lots of black people now.)

And even with all this, I have begun to recognize that I harbor some seriously persistent unconscious biases against black people that influence my body on a daily basis.

The problem that I see with white people discussing race, when we discuss race at all, is that we come to the discussion with the presumption of innocence. We see the problem as “out there.” It’s with the police, it’s with the radical right, it’s with the KKK, it’s the people in the suburbs. We point out the bigots with white hoods and loud mouths and feel better about ourselves, because that isn’t us.

Hey, some of my best friends are black.

But that’s not enough to save us. And we’ve got to stop trying to convince ourselves that we are pure. We’re not. What we are, is an obfuscated mess of biases, hidden so well, that we’ve begun to feel that they aren’t really there and have become masters at deluding ourselves.

Political Correctness

If you’re like me you grew up in the age of “political correctness” - a movement where we started speaking in a way which was supposed to be sensitive to people of color. After doing this a while, we started to think this way. To think that if we never used the word “black” in a sentence, that meant we were not “racist.”

I used to believe that political correctness was something that was supposed to protect black people and other minority groups. Now I see it differently. When I look at how political correctness actually functions in our world I realize it actually works to serve white people. It protects us from sticking our foot in our mouths while making us feel better and limits our ability to think clearly about our true feelings on race. Like Newspeak in 1984, by limiting our vocabulary we hoped to limit our thoughts. If you do not say the word “black” you can not be a racist.

So we learned to replace “black” with “African American” or “urban” or “inner city” and the world started to become monochrome. We learned to stop seeing “color.”

And we were proud of this deficiency. Can’t blame us for this - I mean, usually anyone who proudly defied political correctness usually did it simply to reclaim their “right” to say something truly ignorant about black people. So we pushed further. We strived to achieve color blindness. To truly be unable to distinguish black people from white people. We thought that this will make the world equal.

This plan was deeply flawed. It’s like saying, if we treat everyone like white people, race won’t be a problem. If we treat everyone as we would want to be treated, we are safe. This is false, because it assumes that living in this country as a white person is basically the same as living in this country as a black person.

Our society is built on the exploitation of black people, on white supremacy, and this is a major underlying fact which separates our realities. We must learn to see the world it is: in color. Only then we can begin to address the past and be able to really see what black people are talking about.

If we do not strive to see color, our country will remain a relic of the slave trade, and it won’t matter how well intentioned you are — if you are okay with benefiting from a system designed to provide you with more value over black people, then you are part of the problem. And hey, even if you’re not okay with that, you are still part of the problem. At this point in our history, there is no opt out for systematic racism.

We’ve got to do something so that someday a person can be born in this country without the heavy legacy of white supremacy weighing on their shoulders. So that we can finally create the country we always talk about. You know, that one with liberty and justice for all. We can not change the history of this country, but I do believe we can create a new beginning.

…and I’m not even running for political office.

What Now

So, anyways, we have to do something. But what?

I’m not sure exactly, but I have an idea of where to start.

I believe we as white people need to start uncovering and discussing our unconscious biases in the open.

We need to talk about race, not by starting with “I’m not a racist” but with “I have an anti-black unconscious bias that I’m struggling with.” When we do this, we’ll be less defensiveness in conversations with black people on race, and more open to really changing ourselves. Which is the first step to dismantling a system meant to serve us.

This, we have a moral responsibility to do.

I’ll start. But be warned, it’s going to be uncomfortable.

And that’s as it should be.

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