Monday, July 22, 2013

How to Completely Miss the Point in a Conversation About Racism

Originally published at Opine Season

“Telling [people of color] they’re obsessed with racism is like telling a drowning person they’re obsessed with swimming.” —Hari Kondabolu (hat tip to Donte Collins)

After a week of comments and conversations, I wanted to address the recurring points that some white people have brought up in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. Because it’s not just about Trayvon Martin; every time there’s a national conversation about race and racism, white people (yes, I’m generalizing; no, I’m not sorry) tend to have the same kinds of reactions.

Getting wildly, irrationally defensive even though it’s not about you:
My column from last week basically just says “if you’re white and upset about the verdict, here are some things you can do to confront racism in your own life.” That’s it.

But then come the comments: “It’s racist to say that white people are racist!” “Why do we have to make such a big deal out of this?” “I’m white and I paid to go to college so there’s no such thing as white privilege!” “Why do we have to be singled out?“ The people talking about racism are the real racists!” “We’re not all like that!” “I’m so offended!”

White people: “talking about racism” does not equal “attacking you personally.” We desperately need to stop being so insecure every time anyone brings up anything remotely related to race and racism. You don’t have to agree, but to immediately jump into “eyes-closed-and-screaming” mode speaks volumes about you and the kind of world in which you’d prefer to live.

Refusing to acknowledge the role that race plays in our lives
“It wasn’t about race.” That was the most consistent theme in the responses. Time and time again, when there is a racial incident in this country, people of color point to the giant racist elephant rampaging through the room and white people say “oh that’s probably just the wind.”

Is it possible that Zimmerman would have approached a white kid the same way he approached Trayvon Martin? Sure… it’s possible. But the lived experience of millions upon millions of people says that it’s also extremely naïve to believe that.

When people of color talk about racism, they’re not just making things up. There’s no Black Santa who delivers big bags of money to anyone who claims to have been discriminated against. Racial profiling, harassment and discrimination are daily realities for millions of people. To just dismiss that as “whining” or “playing the race card” is unbelievably arrogant.

“Refusing to talk about racism” doesn’t end racism. “Ending racism” ends racism. If your house is on fire, you don’t just ignore the flames away. Maybe a better metaphor is if your neighbors’ house is on fire, you don’t tell them to “stop making such a big deal out of it.” You don’t look the other direction and say “but are you sure it’s on fire?” You help, or you get the hell out of the way.

Focusing on the details and ignoring the big picture:
“Zimmerman was half-Peruvian!” “911 dispatchers don’t have the authority to give orders!” “Trayvon was big and really strong and got in trouble at school!” “Zimmerman had an African-American girlfriend once!” “Since Travyon was right-handed, and standing at x angle, and the moon was at y point in the sky, there’s no way he could have…”


I think the biggest misconception about the outrage around the Zimmerman trial is that people are mad about the verdict. To be fair, many are. But many more are mad because Travyon Martin happens every day in this country. It may not always end with a dramatic gun death, but young black and brown men are demonized, profiled, harassed, imprisoned and killed every day for being young black and brown men (and women too, let’s be honest).

The marches and rallies that have been happening recently aren’t just about Trayvon Martin. They’re about the culture that demonizes black and brown youth, assuming that they’re dangerous, threatening, and up-to-no-good. They’re about the lack of accountability and consequences in police brutality cases. They’re about disproportionate minority confinement. They’re about the selective application of the “Stand Your Ground” law. They’re about the gross over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. They’re about who is given the benefit of the doubt and who isn’t, time and time again. They’re about the continued de-valuing of black and brown life in this country.

Argue about the specific details of this specific case all you want, but nothing in the above paragraph is up for debate. That’s the big picture that we—especially those of us who identify as white—have to see, if we ever hope to transition from “having a conversation about racism” to “doing something about racism.”

I posted these as a comment on the previous column, but I can’t recommend them enough; absolutely must-read material:

Questlove at NY Magazine

Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic

Aura Bogado at Colorlines

1 comment:

Heidi said...

Thank you for this article. I am white and I think you are right on. I do think racism does go both ways. That said there are people of all colors that are racist and those that are not. There are people of all colors that want to realize the dream of being judge by you character and not your color.