Making Room

One thing white people can do to end racism

Last night a friend of mine posted on Facebook a rhetorical question asking how will rioting by black Americans end racism? I had a rush of responses flow through my mind but wanted to wait until the Ferguson grand jury decision had been read before responding.

This is my response: It won’t.

There is NOTHING black Americans can do to end racism.

If we had the power to magically change the minds of white Americans, trust me, we’d have done that more than a century ago.

There have been a lot of articles about what whites can do to make a difference. There are articles that talk about the challenge of having whites mainly talking to whites about issues like racism. There are more about the effects of white privilege. All of these are informative and are aimed at helping whites be more aware of the world around them from a perspective that some may not possess.

At the end of the day, though, there is one thing — just one thing — that I believe whites can do to end the scourge of racism: stop making room for it in your lives.

Here are two examples:

You know that friend or family member who makes “jokes” that would make you cringe were a black friend of yours in the room? When you let that joke pass when a black friend isn't there, you’re making room for racism.

When you hear whites using terms like “us” and “them”, painting groups of people in broad strokes and you think to yourself “Well, [insert name of black friend] isn't like that” but you don’t say anything and go along with the conversation, you’re making room for racism.

Regarding the first of those, everyone likes to say “those are just jokes”. I like jokes as much as the next guy and a number of them are often politically incorrect. However, you know the people in your lives who are racist. You do. You know when the joke comes from a point of “truth” within them. When you let them know, by silence or laughter, that you’re okay with that, you’re not only making room for racism, you’re embracing it. You’re saying that you share their point of truth.

Disagree? Ok. What if the joke was about their being sexual with your child? Would you be okay with it being a “joke” then? Would you worry about sending a message if you didn't object? I use this example because it is one of those topics where people have no problem confronting anyone in their lives about it. You wouldn't struggle with words. You wouldn't worry about if they didn't understand. You’d say something like “don’t talk, joke or anything like that ever” and you’d do it with the kind of tone, the kind of conviction, that would close the subject eternally. That’s why that particular thing, something that used to be more common in human cultures, isn't anymore. We left zero room for it.

So, now that you have an extreme reference point, how could you convey a similar message about racism? How could you bring the conviction, if not the level of emotion? How can you say that, regardless of what’s been said before and the times that have been shared, your world is closed to racism?

On the second example, the use of “them” is a time worn tool for grouping and exclusion. By drawing a verbal line around one group (or a verbal wall around your own), it becomes very easy to dehumanize the real concerns of others. It allows you to be less compassionate.

It allows you to be a lesser you.

Of course your black friend is “different” from the larger group in the discussion. They’re different because they’re an individual — just like you. The difference doesn't reside in them as some innate quality. It resides in how you have chosen to view your friend.

It’s not difficult to extend understanding to more people, regardless of your relationship to them. You did it when the towers fell. You did it when the tsunami struck. You did it when the hurricane hit. You did it when the fires swept through. You did it when the children were taken. You did it when the flood waters came.

You did it plenty of times and you never ran out of compassion. You didn't make room for racism when all of those things happened either. The response was probably something like “not funny” or “too soon”. The only thing that happened to your world when you closed it to racism during those times — you didn't hear hateful things. That’s it. You had less hate in your life.

If you stop making room for racism to exist, even when there are only white people around, you may find that your stance may give other friends in your circle the courage to do the same. After all, it’s not unusual for one friend to speak for another who had been sitting in the same uncomfortable silence. You may go from being frustrated by what’s happening to being a part of the solution to end it.

Society doesn't exist as a single being with a single point of view. It’s a collective. Black Americans can’t end racism by ourselves. This is a collective effort. If you just stop making room for racism in your piece of society, we’ll all be one step closer to living in a world free of this particular form of hate.

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