On this day of celebration of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., at least one journalist is daring to point out something that demands earnest reflection, appraisal, and commitment to a different, better future. Jenn M. Jackson, in Teen Vogue, assesses a “whitewashed” legacy that does not do justice to the radical agenda of Dr. King. It is unfortunately an appropriate expression for this day and age, when it appears we have slid backwards.
As a Caucasian male myself, I recognize I have no right to pretend to know what any individual historical or contemporary black experience is like, nor define the boundaries of rights and expression for an entire race. What I can do is listen better, get a firmer grasp on the extent of my white privilege, support and advocate for black leadership roles in all arenas, and be willing to sacrifice in ways that might make me uncomfortable. No one should be living in constant fear for their lives, no one should view their future as limited in any regard.
Many of us Caucasians, including truly well-meaning individuals, equate racism with white supremacy, period. That was pretty much my own logic until relatively recently. Then I learned about institutional racism, cultural appropriation, and white privilege. Does it make me uncomfortable when someone points out that I am privileged just for being white? Yes, of course, because I was born that way and there is nothing I can do about my physical appearance and genetic makeup. Thankfully, that is not the only thing that defines me, and I have the freedom and ability to become more empathetic, by choice.
The first step on that road to empathy is to stop defending yourself as a white person. Pause to listen to voices you are have ignored previously. Not everything is about you, but it is often reflexive to assume a comment about your white privilege is accusatory or at least personal. Mental and emotional re-training is never easy, as any recovering addict can tell you. You and I are going to be works in progress, emphasis on work.
Black History Month will be upon us shortly. The media will tend to focus on figures of historical importance, in roles we do not typically associate with blacks. There are scientists and doctors, artists and writers, inventors, athletes….They will be referred to as “exceptional,” but the implied emphasis will be on “exception,” because the expectations of white privilege are so narrow when it comes to other races. You do not get a pass simply because your expectations of black people are not in the thug, drug dealer, or welfare queen categories.
We seem to be comfortable with black people as either entertainers (including spectator sports) or servants. There is that word “comfort” again. This is one race defining what is acceptable for another race, and you should personally have no tolerance for that. Collectively, we should find this kind of racism abhorrent. It is no better than assuming a black male is a criminal or out to take your job through Affirmative Action.
Am I making you squirm by suggesting you have more in common with a confederate flag-waving white supremacist than you thought you did? Good. That is the only way we are going to get anywhere, by confronting our own biases that we did not know were biases, because no one looked that hard before.
We have to be open to criticism, sometimes delivered with hostility, from those who have suffered and continue to suffer, even if we are not personally responsible for that suffering. Then we can begin to alleviate that pain through self-examination, increased empathy, and truly beneficial action.
The celebration of life for my late father was held at his favorite place, a yacht club. I remember it from my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, and it is still just as old, white, and male as it was back then. It pained me that I could not call out the membership right then and there. Maybe I should have.
I remember driving through Over-The-Rhine, a black neighborhood in Cincinnati, with a friend on a summer day. She asked in a rather concerned tone why black people were on their stoops, out in the street, some loud music here and there….Back in the 1990s I did not have an answer, nor did I think it was an unreasonable question. Today? Today I would ask her “Why aren’t (white) we out on our stoops, out in the streets, enjoying the day with our neighbors?”
What are your experiences and expectations and assumptions? Why are they that way? Please, start asking yourself.