Do you see it? Probably not.
Why? Because it’s largely invisible, at least to many white people.
What is it? Racism.
For compassionate, empathetic people, it is hard to see, or maybe even believe, that the world revolves around you. No one wants to think they are that self-centered, but as the saying goes. “it’s not personal.” You have not created this dynamic, it’s systemic. But you benefit, and if you are not actively paying attention and fighting against it, then you are complicit, a part of the problem of race in America.
I understand you may not believe me, but just read for a couple of minutes.
White people are the standard, the default, the given in America. When I was in high school, the census had two racial categories, white and non-white. While that is no longer true, even today when you are reading stories in the newspaper, if no race is noted, the person in the story is almost always white. Sometimes a person of color isn’t defined by race if a picture is included with the story. Check it out the next time you’re reading a book or a news article. Does the story just proceed with people or characters being introduced until it says John’s Latino neighbor or Sue’s African-American colleague? Neither John nor Sue will have been described racially. That’s because they are white and our minds have been programmed to immediately and unconsciously perceive them as such.
Sometimes it is not as obvious. You have to dig a little deeper. You have to focus for the picture to become clear and then compare to see the pattern.
When Paul Manafort was sentenced to 7.5 years in jail, did you think it was a fair sentence? He could have been jailed for up to 24 years in one court and 10 years in the other. Fair—maybe, maybe not—but when you compare, something appears. Black people know it. They may not have known the exact sentence, but they remember Kwame Kilpatrick, the black mayor of Detroit who received a much, much longer sentence for similar crimes. Twenty-eight years (the maximum was 30). When one compares the nature of the financial crimes they both committed, the thought isn’t necessarily that Kilpatrick’s sentence was too harsh, but that Manafort was sentenced on white standards for similar white-collar crimes. It is not just Manafort compared to Kilpatrick, it is white defendant after white defendant.
The rules are different. It isn’t our imagination. This disparity is real.
Do you remember the response to Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte? In Rio for the Summer Games, he and his friends made up a story about being held up at gunpoint. Then a video emerged showing Lochte and his friends kicking down a bathroom door and fighting with a security guard. A big deal? No, not really, except that his story played into a perception that Rio is a dangerous city. The issue of race comes in with the response from the International Olympic Committee, “We have to understand that these kids came here to have fun. Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you make decisions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.” These ‘kids’ were in their early 30s.
But when dealing with black kids, actual kids, a study from the American Psychological Association found that “black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.”
Is that what happened to 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing in a Cleveland park with a toy pistol, when he was killed within seconds of the police arriving? A caller had reported that someone was in the park playing with a gun. The caller had even noted that the gun was probably fake. ‘Life goes on’ is not the carefree reality for all.
The invisibility of racism has been made clearer to me as I have heard one phrase repeatedly from many white people. As they read my book, Daughters of the Dream, or as they move along their own racial justice learning experience, many say, “I had no idea.”
Even though they were relatively close to me, a high school or college classmate or a professional colleague, they had no idea of how I experienced America, how different it was from their experience. I understand. It is hard to see what has been invisible to so many for so long, but I hope the truth of America is coming into focus.
“I’m woke” say many.
Are you? Are you really?
I hope so. A just future for America, and for all who live here, demands it.