“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.
“I’m learning how to see. I don’t know what the reason is, but everything enters into me more deeply and no longer stops at the point where it used to come to an end.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Poet
Police activity around the January 6th Capitol insurrection and the 2020 marches for racial reckoning looked very different. In less than 24 hours, mainstream media was comparing responses. Peaceful protesters vs. armed insurrectionists. BLM vs. MAGA.
The image that aired most often showed National Guard troops stationed last summer on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps, protecting the monument, compared to a complete lack of the same to defend Members of Congress as people climbed the walls of the Capitol in January.
While January 6th sickened and angered me, I had two positive thoughts:
For the first time in recent history, at least that I can remember, no Black person was killed or severely injured to focus white America’s attention on disparate treatment based on race. No George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake….
Black people didn’t have to point out that there was a different police response to a primarily white crowd than to a largely BIPOC one. That difference was widely and almost immediately noticed and became a vital and consistent part of the story.
Does this mean that racism is becoming less invisible? I think so, and that’s good.
But it is not the entire story.
Racism—personal racism and structural racism—is becoming more visible. I’m just not sure that’s true for most of America. Consider these three categories of folks:
The large segment of our country that denies racism (remember Ambassador and former SC Governor Nikki Haley on the first night of the Republican National Convention: “America is not racist” she extolled as she claimed her immigrant status and Indian heritage). These folks believe anyone can succeed in America if you play by the rules and work hard. No need to look deeper. Racism is not the problem. Work harder.
The group that thinks they understand racism and disparity. They want to help, but they often focus on the surface, on prejudice and bigotry, not on the vast, hidden iceberg of injustice below.
The truly segregated white Americans who rarely think about Black and brown people. Out of sight, out of mind. Not on their radar at all unless prompted by a media story (media stories that often contribute to fear of the “other”).
It’s that last category I want to focus on a bit.
Many white Americans live, work, and play in segregated parts of America. Not just rural America, as you may think, or suburban America, but all of America. They have limited contact with people who don’t look like them and rarely think about it. Racial segregation is their norm. Others proudly claim they live in a racially diverse community/city. Still, when you probe a little, you discover that’s not so. They actually live in a racially homogeneous enclave within that city, in the next county over, or even 20 miles away from the part of the city — typically the inner city — that makes it racially diverse.
I mention this because we are far more likely to understand people different from ourselves when we live, work, and play with them. Not just one environment (usually work), but all of them. Live and Work and Play. When different people come to your home, work with you, and regularly enjoy leisure activities with you and your family, those are your friends. Those are the people you care about. Those are the people you want—really want—to achieve the American dream. It is those folks you seek to understand, and it is for those people that you will see what prevents them from achieving their goals.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to be best buddies to understand the humanity of people who don’t look like you or to work for racial justice. Clearly that is not the case. The racist behavior of individuals or racially unjust actions of groups seem clearer to many now and is regularly called out. White allies are seeking truth and working actively for societal change. However, for many, it seems that something must prompt you to delve into understanding a people or a topic far afield from your everyday existence.
Yes, the invisibility is diminishing. I was glad for the two positive signs last month. But racial ignorance remains powerful in many corners of America. Until we address that, my fear is that racial justice will remain far away.
I was just about to do a happy dance and celebrate the new year when I recalled my mother’s voice: “Look for the good in anything bad that happens.” So, I stopped and reflected on a year that seemed to brim with ‘bad.’ And I’m glad I did. Without that, I might not have realized all the good that has come from the past year’s tragedies.
If it hadn’t been for the COVID-19 quarantine and the quiet of self-isolation, would the world have watched, been absorbed by, and responded to the horror of the murder of George Floyd? And if not for George Floyd’s murder (and far too many others), would racial reckonings have emerged across the country?
Would Black Lives Matter Plaza have been born in Washington DC, offering a visual counterpoint to remarks and policies coming from the White House right across the street?
Would monuments that devalue human life have come down, not just in the United States, but around the world?
Would the symbol of the Confederacy on the Mississippi state flag have finally been replaced?
Would racist team names have been removed from the pro sports teams of Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, DC?
Would recognizing the need to repurpose police funds, moving from militarization to mental health support, have gained the traction it has?
Would books on invisible racism and the need for racial equity have topped reader’s lists as more and more Americans, particularly White Americans, seek to understand—and address—the truth of America?
Would we have understood the fragility of our country’s democracy and the massive efforts to suppress voters? And without that, would we have voted in record numbers moving away from the toxicity of fascism toward a healthier democratic America?
I grieve the tragedies of 2020, but just as my mother wisely told me, from the bad has come good. The foundation laid last year is what we will build a more positive future upon.