Several years ago, I attended a cultural awareness symposium at Blue Mountain Community College and the subject was race relations. There was one Black student in the auditorium.
During a question and answer session, a young white woman, quite innocently and politely, used the phrase “you people” in reference to people of color. I looked back at the lone Black student. This was his time to speak up, to speak out, to teach and inform us poor well-meaning, but utterly ignorant white folks. He sat, brooding, saying nothing. I couldn’t let this Hermiston woman’s comment just slip by, so I raised my hand to get the floor. I looked at the African-American student and asked him directly if he thought that was appropriate language to refer to him and his community.
“No,” was all he said. It was all we needed to hear.
We are all products of our context. We are born into already formed value systems, cultural expectations and political ideologies, all undergirded by very efficient but deadly filters. This is particularly true with us white people, a product of and born into dominant cultural, economic, historical privilege. And it is this filter that all whites possess precisely because they are born into it. The filter of unconscious, intransigent, systemic racism. Because we’re born into it and are a part of it, we often can’t see it because we live it and force everyone else to as well.
And this is me, one more aging, old, bald white male, too many of us, a self-proclaimed Christian and retired pastor — a repentant racist. I was born into it, so being surrounded by like trees kept me from seeing the forest. The view in the fish bowl is so clear. I’m imprisoned for life in this small, confining bowl. Somehow, unlike conscious, unrepentant racists, as an adult I consciously rebelled against racism as evil, stupid, illogical, entirely without reason. But as Black people will say, my well-intentioned liberal kind are the worst.
What? Why? How can this be? Conscious racists are out with it. Unconscious, unrepentant and repentant racists, however, are completely clueless about the systemic foundation of their cultural day-to-day norms. The filter of cultural privilege is strong, so efficient that we’re not aware of its presence. And this, my dear commissioners, is our mutual challenge — to understand that while we mean well and have the best intentions, we are truly ignorant about what it’s like to live in anyone else’s shoes.
I do not believe that the three of you are conscious racists. I think you mean well according to your cultural values and expectations, as many white people do. What you are, however — what I am, what all whites are — are racists. Many, if not most of those backing Trump are the obviously repugnant type of racists — conscious and unrepentant. As for me and most I know, we are unconscious and repentant. We’re the ones peacefully marching on Saturdays, thanking the police officers for their service, trying our best to become conscious and self-aware of our filters.
But none of us can be “fixers” when we’re not sure or aware of what exactly needs fixing. It starts with you and me, one cracker at a time. And the only way to begin is for whites to finally shut up and listen to others for a change. Rather than claiming to speak for them, we must be quiet and peaceful for once and ask so we can hear people of color speak. And breathe.