Monthly Archives: March 2015

Overcoming Racism – Understanding Black People (The Truth)

To understand what black people (at least in America) have in common, white people must recognize what we ourselves have in common: our privilege. From childhood, I knew I was privileged because Mother told me I was an aristocrat and better than even most other white people. As a child, I believed her. Although we were poor, I went to the best private schools on scholarship—in hand-me-down uniforms. And, when Greenwich friends invited me to their mansions and country clubs, where the only black people were employees, I learned I was more privileged than black people, too. When my grandmother died, we inherited wealth amassed by generations before us, including wealth from an ancestor who, though a Northerner, had sold tent canvas to Southern rebels during the Civil War. Inheriting is like winning the lottery, but it is an advantage, like education, denied to a people who started as slaves and were later limited to share-cropping and menial jobs.

Many white people don’t enjoy my particular privileges, but, whether or not we realize it, we whites all enjoy privileges black people don’t. Peggy McIntosh’s well-known White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack lists 50 examples, such as, “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearace of financial reliability” and “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” My favorite is, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” It mirrors my last post about white people’s misguided eagerness to “understand” black people based on characteristics.

Black people don’t share characteristics any more than white people do. But black people do share experiences—the experience of being second-class citizens, just as white people share privilege. To understand black people we must recognize that all have experienced—or anticipate experiencing—an inequity based on color. Some are blatant lies—”Sorry, the apartment was just rented.” Some are what are now called microagressions—”I never see you as a black girl.” Each item on Peggy McIntosh’s list represents an instance in which a black person is not treated as well as someone who’s white. Her list reminds us that, in a society still dominated by white males, only white men can feel entirely comfortable. If we want to understand black people, we must acknowledge the truth of these experiences.

The black experience is unlike that of other immigrants in America. Black people were the only immigrants to come here against their will rather than to escape famine and persecution or to find better jobs. Marriage among slaves could be forbidden; mothers, fathers, and children could be split apart and sold to different slave owners; learning to read was risky. Their color made them stand out. Few blacks could elude the slave catcher. Nor could they elude the prevailing myth, designed to justify their enslavement, that black people were inferior. The free labor provided by slavery was the foundation of the South’s economy. Southern cotton fed Northern mills, and America profited. The economic benefits and social evils of slavery, whether in America or elsewhere, cannot be denied.

The painful legacy of slavery and its economic benefits persists in the perception that black people are different from, if not inferior to, other groups—even that they require well-intentioned “understanding.” And, not surprisingly, the people in power since colonial times—white men—want to keep their power. Thus racism persists as a strong undercurrent in politics and the economy. Black people know they can occasionally expect to be treated as second-class citizens. And Africans who’ve just arrived in the States, even those who are wealthy and unfamiliar with racism, learn the same lesson. After all, only white men can feel entirely comfortable, knowing that they will be considered for employment and certain they will never be told that towels are needed in the restroom.

Understanding black people means acknowledging America’s history of white power and black enslavement. Some black people emphasize our painful legacy: “America was built on the backs of our people.” To them, I can’t say “Get over it,” even though I’d like to spare myself a guilt that I, as an individual, feel I don’t deserve. I can’t dismiss those individuals who see themselves as victims because black people, by virtue of their color, are victims of America’s history, just as white people, like me, are beneficiaries. Other black people adopt a “Let’s move on” attitude. That attitude is easier on me, but I shouldn’t assume it means we’ve reached a post-racial society. The past remains alive in Ferguson and on Wall Street. The “Let’s move on” advocates know that much work remains before black people are assured of first-class citizenship. If we want to understand black people, we must be prepared, as we listen to each black person we meet, to accept the validity of either perspective.

Overcoming Racism – Understanding Black People (The Fallacy)

In our attempt to overcome the racism we’ve been taught, many of us older white liberals try to “understand” black people. I know I did. I went to teach at Trenton High believing that all the black teachers and administrators would be like Martin Luther King, Jr. They’d be devoted to improving the lives of their students. Eager to think the best of—but totally unfamiliar with—black people, I chose a stellar example to define my “they.” And whenever my colleagues turned out not to be clones of Dr. King, I was confused and disappointed.

White people who remain racist have often chosen a negative stereotype to describe black people. A childhood acquaintance who still lives in Greenwich, where I grew up, employed a black woman to look after her own children. Yet, when I visited and told her that I worked with black people, she said, “Isn’t it awful the way they raise their kids!” I was shocked by this racist comment. She certainly didn’t know enough black people to generalize about how “they” raised their kids. I also wondered why she hadn’t chosen the nanny she’d trusted for years as her definition of “they.”

My acquaintance and I were both misguided. We wouldn’t have tried to understand or describe white people. Why try with black people? What I didn’t recognize at the time was that, although my acquaintance was certainly racist, I exercised a more subtle form of racism myself. I wished that those black mothers who didn’t raise their children well would realize they were giving black people a bad name. “Don’t you know what white people are thinking?” was my silent plea. “Don’t you know how many of us generalize from individuals to groups, from ‘you’ to ‘they’?”

Liberal white folk don’t want to think badly of black people and so don’t like to be reminded that some black individuals actually do bad things. After Ferguson, I heard white friends complain that Michael Brown should have gotten out of the street, shouldn’t have used the “f” word, shouldn’t have taken those cigarettes, should have backed off. I think they complain partly because better behavior might have saved Michael Brown’s life but perhaps partly because, even though they side with Michael Brown, they would have preferred to support a model black teenager. Michael Brown’s aggressiveness makes them uncomfortable. Yet, if Michael Brown were their son’s troubled white friend (their own son, of course, would never lock horns with a cop), wouldn’t they overlook his behavior and concentrate only on the outrageous over-reaction of the police?

Black professionals know that, because of America’s history of racism, they must be better than their white counterparts to achieve the same success. We white liberals acknowledge that this pressure is unfair. Yet we pressure a Michael Brown or a black welfare mother because we fear that their behavior will feed the racism of other white people—and perhaps our own. That pressure is racist because we don’t ask the same of the in-your-face white teenager or white welfare mother. Their behavior is no reflection on us—unless, of course, black people generalize from the individual to the race, as many white people do. Yet if I don’t want to be held responsible for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, I can’t expect a black person to be responsible for the behavior of other black people.

White people are good, bad, smart, dumb, beautiful and ugly, and so are black people. White people who’ve grown up in integrated communities know this from childhood. I didn’t. But, I was fortunate to work with a cross-section of black people. I learned it then.