The Power of One (to do Good or Bad)

Long ago, I was taught not to pay attention to any one person exhibiting racist behaviors. “They’re powerless,” I was told. “Focus instead on the systems that oppress, those societal structures preventing people of color from achieving.” And that’s what I’ve done . For years, I’ve ignored the individuals as I examined and discussed structural and systemic racism.

Now, I’m changing my thinking… a bit.

Singly, people exhibiting racist behaviors and shouting racial epithets, do have power. They can take my life or that of someone I love because of the color of our skin. Just think of Derek Chauvin and the man in Michigan who shot at a Black teen who was lost and approached his door to ask for directions. They had power.  Or think of those individuals who oversee systems, like local departments of education or land use and zoning commissions.  Some have lethal impact, others the power to shape how systems operate. They all have the power to influence.

What is a young child learning when their grandfather uses racist terms or racist tropes when talking about people of color? What are teens and even younger children learning about basic acceptance, or broader celebration, of people who look different from them when they hear messages of racial hatred or racially charged jokes at the neighborhood barbecue or at the softball game? What are they learning about whom to fear and who to trust, who is smart and who is lazy? What stereotypes are being reinforced? What values are being shaped? I’m talking about what is often referred to as observational learning or role modeling. The words and behaviors of adults have a powerful impact on the children and young people in their lives.

Our families, neighbors, teachers, and the many adults who form our community’s fabric shape who we are. They do so by what they do and say… and what they don’t do or don’t say. What situations are not discussed around your kitchen table? As the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolded on televisions and in newspapers, did your teenage children — who were bound to hear something about it — know what you felt about the incident and about the verdict? Do they know what you think as an increasing number of Asian Americans are assaulted? Incidents that happen in the light of day. Watched with inaction, or perhaps helplessness, or even guilt.

Racist ideas are seeded by the adults in young peoples’ lives, by those who believe in a racial hierarchy that places white people at the top of humanity. Those adults nurture and develop the notions, the seeds that they plant.  Sadly, the sin of omission also shapes values by what isn’t said or done by adults who claim they are liberal, unbiased, non-racists. Ibram Kendi has prompted my thinking in so many ways, particularly by proclaiming if you aren’t working against racism, you are a part of the problem. You are a racist.

A single person can be the spark that ignites the flame of racial injustice or lights the way for others to fight for change. Each of us decides what imprint we’re going to leave in the world.

I can no longer minimize the power of racist individuals.

Can You See It Now?

 

Some people have what might be called a significant vision problem. They don’t see/can’t see/won’t see structural racism or the inherent patriotism in fighting for racial justice.

Can You See It Now? is a short story that follows Paul White on a most unusual doctor’s appointment.

Get comfy.  Do you have your favorite beverage?  Ready to read? Here’s the link.  Please share with those who might benefit from seeing the world through a different lens.

 

A blindness in eyes that can see

 “Eyes are sometimes like our judgments… blind.”                                                               –William Shakespeare

My learning began following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his murderer, George Zimmerman. For years since, I’ve tried to understand racism in America: listening to podcasts, reading books, taking classes, attending lectures, and immersing myself in the strange and horrific reality of racism in our country. My desire for knowledge deepened as the list of Black men, women, and children killed by police officers grew. Deaths, where, in the same circumstances, white people would likely have survived.

I’m an adult Black woman, born, raised, and educated in Virginia; now living in Washington, DC, still geographically below the Mason-Dixon line (not that that matters anymore or ever did). I’ve knowingly experienced prejudice and discrimination. Yet, I hadn’t fully appreciated how racism works until I studied it. No longer just experiencing it but delving deeply into what causes it and why it continues.

My eyes opened as I started reviewing data on the contrast in the quality of life between people of color and white people: high school and college graduation rates, life expectancy, measures of financial security, job attainment and retention, and, of course, the number and severity of encounters with America’s criminal justice system. That research opened my eyes and made me think and question. Why did Black and brown people predominate in statistics that reflect poor quality of life? Why was that so for decade after decade after decade?

That’s when the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me. We—people of color —can’t win, at least not in significant numbers with the current system, the current reality. Of course, there will be success stories in politics, business, the civic sector, science, sports, and culture — everywhere. Some rise to the top, the exceptions that fight for everything they get. The expression: “We [Black people] have to work twice as hard to get half as much” continues to be demonstrated to me. I knew that as a child. My parents had prepared me, and I saw it as a teen and as a young adult. Sadly, I also realized its truth over many decades later and some personal success.

Before then, I didn’t perceive it—racism, structural racism—as a massively interconnected system that crossed all aspects of our country’s reality to advantage white people over people of color repeatedly, constantly, always. I didn’t understand how embedded policies, practices, and just everyday behaviors were in America’s cultural, structural, and historical reality. I didn’t really know it’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink. I was blind. We can’t get away from it. We can’t change it unless we do so mindfully, intentionally, with eyes wide open.’

Now, I know many people believe we are post-racial. For them, Barack Obama’s attainment of the presidency clarified we live in a post-racial society, never having to think about racial inequity again. We can simply just treat people as people. The post-racial folks think if we are kind, sensitive, and caring to each other, we will achieve Dr. King’s dream, at least that’s what some—too many—think. Others minimize or deny that racism exists, at least, for them, not since the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The voting rights act and affirmative action laws had produced a level legal playing field in their minds. With the election of a Black president on top of a foundation of legalized equality, some fervently deny that racism exists in our country. They believe everyone has an equal chance to succeed, and if you don’t, it’s your fault. You didn’t try hard enough.

That’s why I wrote Can You See It Now? My parable on racism’s invisibility and the inherent patriotism in fighting for racial justice will come out next month.

It is significantly divergent from my monthly Daughters of the Dream blog. Instead of a short essay that only takes 4-5 minutes to read (like what you’re reading now), I’ve written a parable. In about an hour’s reading, you will follow a white man whose eyes are being opened, gently but powerfully, to the reality of racism in America. I hope you’ll read, comment, and indicate if you liked the story (this helps improve visibility so others can discover it). But it’s not really intended for you, my regular blog followers. It’s for that family member, colleague, neighbor, or friend who may still be blind to racism. Can You See It Now? is intended to open eyes, then minds, and then hearts. It’s intended to increase the number willing to start a racial equity learning journey. Most importantly, it is intended to increase the number of allies and fighters in the quest for racial justice.

Fingers crossed.

Prayers lifted.

Fist raised.

Onward.