I had a very typical white suburban upbringing. My graduating class of 250+ people had a handful of people of color. I didn’t meet a Latino person until college, which I called to report to my mom (“He speaks Spanish, like he grew up speaking Spanish!”). I have a distinct memory of a classmate making jokes using racial slurs in fifth grade.
The only time that I remember riding a city bus as a kid was with an adult relative. After a few stops, a young black man got on the bus. He was well-dressed in a tailored suit and sharp shoes – the same kind of outfit my dad wore to work every day. My relative watched him get on the bus, looked him up and down, and cheerily exclaimed to no one, “Good for him.”
The fact that I remember that vignette so vividly tells me that even at that young age, I realized that what she said was a loaded statement. It meant that a young black man in a suit was abnormal. It meant that this young black man was doing something right when the other young black men were not. It meant that he was fitting in to my relative’s standards of success as an affluent white woman.
I don’t think my relative said what she said in any sort of malicious way, and I don’t think she thought about any of this when she said it. I think she was genuinely pleased that her fellow human being appeared to be doing well and was dressing the part. But that scene has stuck with me my entire life because it made me realize, even as a child, that the way that my relative perceived man was different. I knew it wasn’t because he was wearing a suit. My dad wore a suit. The only thing I could see that was different about this guy was that he was black.
I’ve been thinking about this memory a lot lately. Thinking about how our upbringing affects our perceptions, particularly in regards to race. About how our country’s natural instinct in times of racial turmoil and injustice is often to goodheartedly insist that we’re all the same, when in fact, we’re absolutely not. There are good things about our differences – our different cultures, histories, insights, food, music, literature – and there are very bad things, like the way that as white people, we often use those differences to justify the way that we treat people of color differently, both in the macro and micro senses.
In thinking about these things and asking myself lots of questions, I’ve been compelled to read articles like this, and yesterday I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in one sitting. If you haven’t read it already you are, like me, super behind the times, but it’s on sale for $5.99 for Kindle so you now have no excuse.
Between the World and Me coalesced a lot of the thoughts and feelings that I’ve tried to process about race for a very long time. For example, Coates talks about the false construction of race. He never refers to “white people,” but “people who believe they are white.” This sounds silly until you realize, as he notes, that “white” in America is a construction that has changed dramatically over time. 100 years ago, “white” excluded tons of racial minorities that now comfortably reside under and benefit from that designation, including Irish, Italian, and Polish people. 100 years ago, as an Italian-Armenian-German person, I would not have been “white” in America. The whole point of whiteness is to create an other, so that we are not the other. As Coates says, “We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”
And if you’re not one of those people who “believes that they are white” in America, you are an other. You are different. And, according to Coates, that means you are valued less, particularly in regards to your body:
… all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.
It’s very easy to think of examples of this – what white people often call “black on black” violence, police brutality, etc. And there are other examples that we don’t often think about, like the ones in Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, about the control of black women’s reproductive autonomy.
And as Coates says, and I’ve learned from reading a lot lately about the American Revolution (thanks, Hamilton!), this is America’s heritage. We’ve been working to simultaneously ignore and confirm race for our entire history. We don’t want to talk about it, but we do we want to make sure that behind the scenes, nothing changes, so that as white people we don’t have to risk our dominance.
Maybe this sounds like total BS to you. I’m probably not going to change your mind, and maybe no one else is. But whether this sounds crazy or correct to you, do me a favor: always ask questions. Challenge your beliefs and perceptions. Don’t accept things at face value. Don’t believe what the people in power – your parents, your teachers, your bosses – tell you. Read Between the World and Me. Read Black Boy. Read everything you can about people whose experiences have been different from yours. Because we are all human beings, but we are very different. And our best hope for averting mass chaos and destruction is to at least attempt to understand and appreciate each others’ differences.
And guess what? There are times where it will feel like there are only questions and no answers. That’s how it feels for me right now when it comes to the way we deal with race in this country. But, as Rainer Maria Rilke said (in my favorite quote ever):
Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.