Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dear America: A few things this black woman would like you to know about race


It is normal to be prejudiced.

...and in a country like America that was born and raised on the notion of white supremacy (See manifest destiny, slavery, Jim Crow, internment of Japanese citizens...), it is normal to be prejudiced against black people. So ingrained is the idea that white culture is right, or at least the benchmark for all other cultures, that even most black Americans devalue blackness (See "the doll test" as one example. See black hack comedians and their "black people are always late, broke, triflin'..." schtick as another.) So white America, modern prejudice is not all your fault.

Now that I have said that, now that I have absolved you of personal guilt, can we have the conversation about race that everyone keeps referring to? I mean a REAL conversation, not the one that has played out over the last month on talk radio and cable news and political blogs and Web sites, where black people attempt to shed some light on the ways race affects our daily lives and white people get defensive and angry and insist that race is no longer an issue.

Witness the reaction to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent statements about race.


"Black Americans were a founding population," Rice said. "Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That's not a very pretty reality of our founding."

As a result, Miss Rice told editors and reporters at The Washington Times,
"descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that."

"That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today," she said. SOURCE
What to me seemed like a reasoned statement that acknowledges the reality of our country's past and present, made Lou Dobbs clutch his pearls in horror.

"There is no country on the face of the Earth as progressive, as racially and ethnically diverse as our own," Dobbs wailed. "It's something we should be proud of." SOURCE
Why is the very mention of our country's racist past and its lingering prejudices anathema to some? Why does discussing racism so often result in defensive bravado? It's as if pointing out racial challenges negates the progress the country has made and condemns every member of the mainstream as an irredeemable racist. That is not the case.

If you are willing to listen, here are some other things that this black woman would like the mainstream to know about racism and the relationship between black and white Americans:

Racism and prejudice aren't about white sheets and Jim Crow anymore. Black Americans know that. Only an idiot would claim that our nation has not made tremendous gains in racial equality.It is just that we know that racism and prejudice still exist, because we live with it every day. Unlike the naked racism faced by our grandparents and ancestors, the bias most of us face today is covert or institutionalized.

For those who listened to the Women's History Month panel discussion, you may remember Shecodes, a black woman, sharing a story about a job interview with a Wall Street firm. The company was eager to recruit Shecodes after reviewing her resume and talking to her on the phone, but when she arrived for her interview, things changed. Shecodes waited nearly an hour before asking if the interview was going to happen. What followed was a discussion with a brusque interviewer who would not make eye contact and quickly dismissed her. Nearly every black professional I know can tell at least one story like this--a job interview where a potential employer is excited by stellar credentials and a race-neutral name and voice, but immediately turned off at the sight of a black candidate.

Now Shecodes eventually got a job on Wall Street and indeed ended up having the very office once occupied by her rude interviewer. Did she triumph? Yes! Is this occurrence as bad as being held in bondage or legally denied the vote? Maybe not. But it is still racism.

Modern racism is like a dull ache:

Being able to only rise so high in the company despite excellent credentials and performance ...a dull ache.

Having your natural kinky hair stared at and pawed by strangers...a dull ache.

Being followed around department stores by security officers...a dull ache.

Worrying about young male loved ones often stopped by police for "driving while black"...a dull ache.

Seeing how quick Americans were to believe erroneous tales of raping and pillaging among Hurricane Katrina victims at the Superdome...a dull ache.

Watching missing young white women and children garner national coverage while black women and children are ignored...a dull ache.

Living in the Midwest and knowing that there are still some towns that you dare not visit alone...a dull ache.

Wondering if the poor service and stares you received at that great new restaurant were based on your race...a dull ache.

A dull ache is far better than what my ancestors suffered (At 38, I am just one generation removed from Jim Crow.). I have only rarely been the victim of overt racism, but a dull ache is still depressing and stressful in its persistence. And covert racism keeps the playing field imbalanced just as overt racism does. I should also mention that I am the educated, middle class child of an educated, middle class family. For many black people, caught in a cycle of poverty, racism is less a dull ache than chronic torment.

Black people don't expect you to know about all of these things. How could you? How can Lou Dobbs, a wealthy, white man, unequivocally proclaim how "progressive" America is about race? How the hell would he know?

We just need you to admit that you don't know. And then we need you to listen.

Anger at the system is not the same as anger at individual white people. Many black people are frustrated and angered by racial inequities inherent in "the system," but that doesn't mean that we are angry with you the individual. During the Women's History Month broadcast, Shecodes clearly stated that her experience with the racist Wall Street interviewer did not make her dislike white people. Only that woman can bear the guilt for what she did. Most black people I know feel the same way. Most of us have white friends and neighbors. Some of us have white husbands and wives. Our anger isn't about hatred; it is about a desire for equality.

Good people can be prejudiced. Where did everyone get the idea that prejudiced people were mustache-twirling, one-dimensional villains? The idea keeps everyday people from honestly evaluating their biases, because "only bad people are prejudiced."

As I said in the first paragraph of this essay, white supremacy is ingrained in American culture and we are all affected by that. I don't mean the "white power" sort of supremacy, just the idea that the dominant culture, which is white/European, is the benchmark. So, it is no surprise that blond hair and blue eyes are celebrated, that a black preacher's fiery sermons would strike many Americans as odd, and that a black accent is perceived as less desirable than a white one.

The sin is not that we are biased in this way--and we are ALL biased. The sin is that we pretend that we aren't biased and fail to address the inequities that our prejudice creates.

There is more I could add, like: There are no official black leaders so please stop thinking Al Sharpton is the black Messiah. But the points above are ones that have been swirling in my head as public discourse has more and more turned to the topic of race.

Look, all this black woman wants is equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. My experience tells me that despite great strides, we aren't there yet. And we won't get there as long as the majority of Americans think the job is already done. Unfortunately, recent conversations about race have led me to believe this is exactly what the majority of Americans think.

It is way past time to have a real conversation about race. But America, are you willing to listen as well as speak?

Agree with me? Disagree? Let me hear from you.

UPDATE: Latoya Peterson at Racialicious holds forth on the Rice/Dobbs controversy here.

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