White people, your denial is the problem. Yes, really.
Recently, PBS aired the documentary film Little White Lie. The documentary details the life of Lacey Schwartz. Though obviously biracial, Schwartz was raised as white and Jewish. However, as with most people of color, Schwartz knew she was different than everyone in her all-white community from very early on. She believed the little white (or black…uh, biracial?) lie, until she confronted her mother about the (spoiler alert!) family secret of her mother’s affair with a black family friend. Schwartz found out the truth about herself and her family during her freshman year of college at Georgetown University, to which she was admitted as a black student.
Throughout the film, Schwartz interviews her family members and childhood friends about her racial identity and appearance. All of them at some point denied her blackness, choosing to believe that she took after a descendant, a swarthy Sicilian Jew. Throughout the film, I had trouble understanding how someone who was so obviously black/biracial like Schwartz ever passed as white — at every turn, every childhood photo, and whenever they showed her face, I yelled at the TV, “But she looks black!” At the same time, I was struck by the amount of mental gymnastics everyone around her went through to deny what was right in front of their faces.
My takeaway from this film: Denial — particularly the way that white Americans so easily and so steadfastly deny issues and instances of race in order to perpetuate the white normative narrative they prefer. With this in mind, imagine my delight at finding this interview with Lacey Schwartz on Salon.com in which she says the following in response to whether or not she had “any inkling” of this family secret before her parents divorced when she was 16:
“I personally think a huge theme of my story in the film is the theme of denial. To me it’s like looking at the anatomy of denial…One of the things that I was interested in looking at is how everybody had their own timeline of denial. Even me. Even though it was learned behavior. To say I had no idea? I actually don’t look at things as black and white as that. I think when it comes to denial it’s really about creating your own reality and a lot of times in instances before you — quote, unquote — lie to other people, you frequently lie to yourself first. You’re the first person you’re really convincing of something…And then the second stage of that is deep down you know the truth but you’re not willing to admit it to yourself, which for me was from the time when my parents broke up when I was 16 until I came home from my freshman year at college and I had that conversation with my mom. The third stage is the stage where you actually know the truth, you’re admitting it to yourself, you’re just not talking to other people about it.”
This gets at the very heart of how I feel, not only about the film, but how I feel white Americans generally approach issues and conversations around racial disparity in America. I have found that white Americans, more often than not, create their own reality in which all races are equal, despite historic and current events, statistics, and essentially all evidence to the contrary.
Yes, all people are intrinsically equal, but in practice, in society, this just is not the case.
When the events started to unfold in Ferguson, MO last August, I found myself in a hellstorm of racist tweets and Facebook updates, most of which were authored by white people, all of which were authored by those not wanting to give the racial aspect of the events surrounding Mike Brown’s death a second thought.
This particular conversation serves as the blueprint for how my conversations with race tend to go with the majority of white people I know:
1) Someone takes the stance that something racist is awful. In this case, it was my friend Sarah.
2) Someone just feels COMPELLED to insert themselves and say that the aforementioned-racist incident is “not about color/race/oppressive factor”.
3) Informed people disagree, using logic not rooted in denial —that would be me, Sarah, and a few people on her friend list.
4) The racism denier literally refuses to engage “in a battle”, read any sort of opinion other than their own, regardless of facts or evidence, and then exits the conversation stage left.
This is the same formula for the denial demonstrated in Schwartz’s film. Many white people (and as we know, even some people of color, like Schwartz herself) just make up or learn a narrative they want to believe and refuse to listen to literally anything to the contrary, perpetuating not only the continuation of racism, but the continuation of ignorance. In the film, Schwartz’s father did not want to hear the actual evidence or reality of her biological father’s existence. He absolutely chose ignorance.
In conversations around race, people want proof. I’ve provided statistics and studies. One of the comments above mentions that the Department of Justice was going to investigate Ferguson’s police department. That was in November. Said-report came out in the beginning of March and the thesis is: “Qualitative and Quantitative evidence undeniably proves racism in the Ferguson PD.” People still did not want to believe the findings.
It’s astounding. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.
And yet, this is reality.
When it comes to the real world application of the question posed to Schwartz — “Was there any inkling of the truth?” — I’m willing to insist that, deep down, yes. White Americans do know that there is racial disparity between themselves and black Americans. But for those who are not allies in the black struggle, being vocal about the truth has to serve some advantageous purpose, otherwise the denial can and will continue. In this case, it’s so that this white person can taunt a black person:
So, after many-a-Facebook rant and many-a-Twitter fight, I have come to the conclusion that people generally know the truth. They are just actively or passively choosing not to believe it, and convincing themselves of some other narrative. And the reason, like the reason for the hush-hush about Lacey Schwartz’s true paternity, is because most people do not want to have difficult conversations. In America, conversations about race continue to be the hardest for white people.
For those who fall into that category — imagine what kind of change, what kind of equality we could achieve if you put all of that effort used for denial and provocation towards fighting the good fight.
Cognitive dissonance is one helluva drug.
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