This Is What We Mean When We Say
It’s About Race.
(To the white person who just doesn’t see it.)
So I wrote about this before, but this time I’m going to try to go a little bit bigger.
This is a response to the atrocities in Ferguson, Missouri, which started with the killing of unarmed African-American citizen Michael Brown, but has since regressed into an overzealous military occupation that has actively suppressed not only peaceful demonstration but legitimate news-gathering.
But really, this doesn’t need Ferguson as its backdrop. It could’ve been written after Trayvon Martin was killed. Or even after something much less deadly, like when Henry Louis Gates was detained on his own property. Or even something as ordinary as this actor being accused of credit card fraud, these guys being prevented from relaxing in a nightclub or feeling accepted in their school, or even this guy just trying to enjoy a nice, peaceful hike.
What these incidents all have in common is that they are considered to be “racial” incidents, in the sense that they were notable because of the racial and/or ethnic identity of the subjects. Or rather, let me clarify – they are considered to be racial incidents by people of color.
Though there are certain contingents of white people who choose to position themselves as allies in response to these kinds of events, including a few brave, intrepid and dedicated souls who do this on a regular basis, many white people – perhaps even most – do not.
It’s not that they are actively racist, entrenched in rabid opposition to the voices of color drawing attention to these incidents.
No, I’m talking about, for the most part, nice people – often Christian people – who just don’t see it.
These are the people who, when first reacting to the controversy at hand, will often say or write that exact phrase, or some variant of it.
How is this a racial thing? I don’t see it.
I fail to see how this is a racial issue.
I don’t see how you can make this about race.
Check any local or national news story with a racial angle, and I guarantee, you’ll see a lot of those comments underneath. And depending on the situation, how much heat is being generated in headlines and popular discussion, if the conversation is happening online or in person, whether it’s in the break room at work or in a bar or restaurant afterward, with friends or with family, etc…
AT SOME POINT, the white person who doesn't see it will draw one of two binary conclusions.
Either, it will become,
I don’t see it… I wonder what it is I’m not seeing… can someone help me here?
Or it will become,
I don’t see it… because it’s not there. These people are inventing a problem that doesn’t exist.
Now, it’s rare, but I’ve seen it happen – sometimes people draw the second conclusion first, but then reconsider, and end up coming around to the first way. Sightings like these are perhaps the single biggest reason why I continue to talk about these issues on Facebook.
But I might not be around to break down the ins and outs of the next big racially polarizing incident, so I thought I would try to break this down sufficiently enough so that in the future, you can apply it to whatever ridiculous race-related scandal comes down the pike.
It is my — perhaps naïve but nevertheless sincere – hope that this essay will communicate enough truth and insight to help anyone who doesn’t understand what people of color mean when we say something is about race.
And to do that, I need to clarify what we’re NOT saying.
When we say it’s about race, we’re not claiming that the person(s) of color involved are or were completely without fault.
One of the things that sparked so much additional outrage and demonstrations in Ferguson was that the local police department, at the same time that they released the name of the officer that killed Michael Brown, also released security footage that they claimed showed Brown as a suspect in a convenience store robbery earlier that day. The implication was that, hey, we may have killed him, but he wasn’t the choir boy you people made him out to be.
This line of thinking is infuriatingly irrelevant, and if I were a resident of Ferguson, might have propelled me up out of bed and back into the streets for a fresh round of demonstrations. Why, you ask? Because even if it was Michael Brown on that tape, even if he did rob that store, and even if that unproven allegation was the basis for the cop’s initial interaction with Brown (which both police and witnesses agree was NOT the case), that doesn’t justify the use of lethal force, especially when the suspect was attempting to surrender.
We must resist this line of thinking, in part, because it can ALWAYS be used to justify lethal force after the fact. This was the point of the #iftheygunnedmedown Twitter meme, to illustrate the selectivity that journalists and editors can employ in order to portray the victim as intimidating or menacing as possible, as if even the most ill-timed, tasteless photo can justify the taking of another human life.
No one is claiming that Mike Brown was blameless; only that whatever faults he did have, they were not worth ending his life over, and any claim otherwise – stated or implied – is not only patently false, but morally despicable.
When we say it’s about race, we’re not necessarily attempting to hold you personally responsible.
One of the gifts that modern politicians give us on a regular basis (and believe me when I say that I’m not accustomed to starting sentences this way) is the reminder that all of us grapple with the tension between operating as individuals and as members of important, identity-shaping groups. Much of the political maneuvering that will happen between now and the 2016 presidential election will be from primary candidates who will try to differentiate themselves from others within their party by maintaining enough of a positive connection with the party’s ideological base without alienating the moderate, independent voters that could decide a general election.
Why is this relevant now? As white people, in order to be culturally competent in the 21st century information economy, you have to recognize that you exist both as individuals, and as member of a group (an arbitrarily defined, socially-constructed group, but a group nonetheless).
So when we tell you that a particular event or issue is about race, we’re not necessarily holding you personally responsible for decades worth of political disenfranchisement and economic inequity (that is, assuming you’re not Donald or Shelly Sterling).
Which doesn't mean that the anger or frustration isn't real. It just means that we’re not necessarily aiming it at you specifically.
In some cases, we’re not aiming it at all, it may just be spraying every which way in blind, Hulk-like rage. But in most cases, when impassioned people of color are saying that a particular event or issue is about race, what we’re aiming to both uncover and dismantle is the racialized system of interlocking societal institutions that perpetuate these kinds of outcomes. We’re not necessarily trying to blame you for what happened, as much as we’re asking you to consider your situation, consider the reality around you, and try to make it better for those of us who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t getting a fair shake.
Not to get all beatnik on y’all, but it’s the system — that’s the problem. Yes, there are things you can do to help, and maybe perhaps there can be some collective work to repair the damage, but we’re not asking for all that. Before any of that can happen, we’re just asking you to acknowledge that race is an issue, not just in general, but in this situation.
Which leads me to my final point…
When we say it’s about race, we’re not saying it’s exclusively about race.
Rather, what we’re saying is that the racial component to this story is significant enough that without it, the outcome probably would’ve been markedly different.
Much of the horrified reaction to the Ferguson story has come not just from the initial shooting, but the overwhelming police response afterward, and it has shed light to all sorts of issues related to why and how local police agencies are procuring and deploying tools of military conflict in local police matters.
This excellent segment from John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight breaks down the issues well, acknowledging the racial angle but focusing mostly on the ridiculously disproportionate use of deadly weapons and armored vehicles for mundane local police matters. It’s a great encapsulation of the axiom, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – except replace “hammer” with “assault-style combat vehicle with automatic firearms.”
The truth is, this issue of the militarizing of local municipal police forces – this is an important issue, regardless of racial overtones. Even if all the white officers with automatic weapons and riot gear were aiming their weapons exclusively at other white people, it would still be a tremendously important civil liberties issue, the kind of thing that Tea Party Republicans would, under normal circumstances, embrace full boar – which is why many of them stood up for Nevada rancher Clive Bundy when his ranch was visited by federal authorities.
But the biggest difference between the weapon-wielding supporters of Bundy and the boisterous demonstrators of Ferguson is, well, like night and day.
It didn’t surprise me at all to find that many of the white citizens and public servants in Ferguson had no idea there was any kind of racial division in the city, because that’s one of the chief aspects of white privilege – the benefit of not having to deal with it if you don’t want to.
So when we say that this or any other issue is about race, part of what we’re asking is for you to go beyond the scope of your own experiences when choosing whether or not to validate another person’s perspective, because your experiences may not shed enough light on the problem. Just as fish don’t understand the concept of water until they’re out of it, white people don’t usually understand white privilege until they’re forced to confront its effects, usually by people of color who are sick of getting the short end of the privilege equation.
So keep these things in mind the next time you have a hard time figuring out how this or another issue is or isn’t “about race.”
And consider this. When a person of color, however gently or urgently, tells you that perhaps this is about race, that statement probably wasn't their very first reaction.
Their first reaction probably looked like this:
Wake the hell up already.
A Pacific Northwest native, Jelani Greenidge is a dynamic communicator with a drive to inform, inflame, and inspire. Whether in print, in song, or in person, Jelani engages people with a stylized blend of urban intellect, incisive commentary, and practical theology. He tackles a variety of subjects, but his sweet spot is right at the three-way intersection of nerd culture, hip-hop culture, and evangelical culture. He is a speaker, songwriter, arranger, producer, hip-hop emcee, regular columnist for UrbanFaith.com, and the founder of Motif Worship, a resource for keyboard-driven worship leaders.
Plus he dabbles in comedy now.
Jelani resides with his lovely bride Holly in leafy Portland, Ore., alongside several resilient plants, an XBOX 360, and no pets. Jelani blogs at JelaniGreenidge.com and can be found on Twitter at @jelanigreenidge.