Dear White Americans Who Don’t “Get” Race/Racism

| July 17, 2013 | 47 Comments

(Unnecessary disclaimer: This is not a letter to all White Americans, but it’s for those who “don’t see color” or who feel that we are post-racial in America, think racism is a thing of the past that ended with the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Amendments 13-15 of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act [which was just gutted to remove racial protection enforcement], President Obama’s elections, or any other law or event that somehow magically changed the hearts and minds of Americans. We are not post-racial and y’all really aren’t the proper authority to teach minorities about what is or is not racism in America.)

 

Dear White Americans Who Don’t “Get” Race/Racism:

I know that it’s hard to explain racism these days. I mean, with the absence of Jim Crow laws and slavery mandates, it’s hard to see racism clearly.

Racism is a gut feeling that something is wrong; an intuition, if you will. But most times, it’s not an intuition that is felt by you, white American who doesn’t “get” what racism is. Racism is associated with power and the ability to oppress others to the point of setting up self-propelled societal systems in which more power flows to one particular group than another. Most minorities don’t have that power unless they are in a management position at a job in which you work under them. What you may feel most times, however, is prejudice. Other races can be prejudiced against you to automatically assume that you prepare bland foods, maintain a washcloth-free irregular bathing schedule, constantly place bewildering and complicated food orders despite a long line behind you, have good credit, have a lot of money, or that you can’t dance on-beat. Social awkwardness, yes. However, none of these prejudices lead to your being part of a group that is maligned in society and thought the worst of enough to have a legal system validate that perception and do things like incarcerate you four times more than someone else of another race for the same crime.

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You might believe that I’m a violent suspect by nature and that I am a thug when I wear my hoodie in the rain while walking back to my own home. George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin and aside from wannabe white Republicans like Clarence Thomas and attention-seeking @GOPBlackChick from Twitter, most of George Zimmerman’s supporters are conservative white people. Generally, black folks are mad about the verdict and what it represents about the justice system as well as how race was used in the event that killed Trayvon Martin. We know that the way the facts were laid out and presented by the less-than-stellar job the prosecution did could have resulted, at best (according to instructions and Florida law), in a mistrial and felt that it probably was going to end up with a not guilty verdict, but no, we cannot simply let it go because of the overarching problem the entire trial and verdict represents. Are you getting it yet? Rest in peace, Trayvon Martin.

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Telling me that race doesn’t matter in the justice system’s application of said justice, or that we are somehow magically post-racial thanks to apparent sorcery afoot from electing Barack Obama president twice, is offensive. Stop it. Your ancestors are responsible for setting the tone for race relations in this country and they failed at repairing those relations starting in 1865, and relatively few have bothered to care ever since. Your ancestors were conquering, enslaving people, yet somehow also the most timid, constantly doing things to oppressively ensure their safety on “top” of the people they conquered. (See: Manifest Destiny.) Conduct a séance to hash that out with your bloodline and stop blaming me and mine for those problems because we “won’t let it go!” Nope. Not going to. Never. Never ever ever.

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Nahhh…huh uh. We ain’t doing that.

Richard Cohen, inexplicably still-employed Washington Post opinion writer, stated that black people need to stop being so threatening by fashion choices and perceived violence (I guess from movies, from what he describes). Look here, the onus is not on black people to dress or act in a way that makes you more comfortable if they act just like you. You’re allowed to be yourselves while you riot after your team loses the Stanley Cup or an Orange Bowl. You’re allowed to fall out of bars, drunk, at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning and risk getting hit by passing cars as you bump into them or pound them as they pass.

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You’re allowed to do this:

When I moved into my mostly white neighborhood (I was the second person of color in my building and the only black person for over a year, and the only people who said “Hello” back to me for the first six months were my neighbors who parked beside me), I was changing the tags on my car in the parking lot on my birthday. I was dressed in a fitted T-shirt and jeans that hugged my legs pretty well. (I don’t sag my pants.) I also had on casual Skechers shoes and my hair was trimmed neatly and cut close to my scalp. I finished changing my tags and was checking to make sure I hadn’t dropped any screws that could puncture my tires. I had just finished when a couple from my building saw me looking around my car WITH MY OLD TAGS, REGISTRATION, AND TAG HOLDERS IN MY HAND, and asked what I was doing.

Her: “Can I help you?”

Me: *ignores her*

Her: “Can I help you?!”

Me: “Excuse me? No.” *continues to look*

Her: “Well, it looks a little odd with you snooping around the parking lot looking at cars.”

Wisely, her husband noticed my face rising up with the fury of my whipped ancestors and quietly ducked around her, put his suitcase into the car and got inside. Smart man. On the other hand, this dumb, racist, inessential waste-of-creation [expletive deleted] decided to keep standing there.

So, I canceled out the idea of loudly cursing her out in my quiet neighborhood so bad that Eve would feel it in Heaven, and decided (staring her down, voice shaking with anger and wanting to lodge the old tags into her skull) to say, “I just changed the tags on MY car.” I showed her the visible tags, looked at her with disgust, and loudly armed my own luxury car.

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(Fellow beloved Negroes, I know I owed her no explanation.) I wasn’t dressed in any fashion foreign to how everyone else dressed in the neighborhood. Enjoyably, her face was broken and she always spoke to me after that, even going so far as to hold the front door open for me, even if she saw me coming from a half block away.

Stuff like THAT doesn’t make ME feel safe around YOU. Yet, you’re allowed to live and not considered violent, even though most murders of white people are committed by other white people (Justice Department PDF), which is very high considering y’all are the most populous group in the U.S. and more spread out than minorities, who mostly stay concentrated in one area. So, let US live in the peace and freedom from prejudice that you so obviously enjoy!

You picking up what I’m putting down yet?

Racism, American-style, today is more like this: Let’s say that I punch you in your neck with all my weight behind it. You can’t see the pain. You tell me that it hurts and you might be irreparably damaged from it. I tell you that it doesn’t hurt and it’s not really pain. You’re exaggerating. I whine about how you’re accusing me of doing something that no one can visibly see until someone comes to my aid to scold you for speaking up about your pain and your accusing me of something no one can see. I’m whisked away somewhere away from you where I can resume punching folks in the neck. You’re still there in pain, hurting, and no one believes you or cares about your pain.

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That is how racism feels – unseen and ofttimes subtle. And you can’t tell me that it doesn’t hurt just because you can’t see it. I say this all in love because God knows I don’t hate white people, but I really want those who don’t “get” it to hear me and get it together. We all have biases against someone for something, but let’s stop saying racism is over. Because, NAWL!

Love,

jamin

(P.S. – Stop Trayvoning too. Like, really?)

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Comments (47)

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  1. AWordorThree says:

    Love. *throws roses*

  2. So awesome! Great job, man!

  3. Laughlin girl says:

    Is a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound if there is no one there to hear it ? Does racism hurt, when it it subtle , and no one sees it or feels it but you,the receiver of it?
    If you have never been the one that stands in a line in Macy’s you know u r the next person up but here comes a white woman who does not see you because you know Blacks are invisible, and the sales person who saw you standing there for five or ten minutes begans to wait on her ,then when I say something I am Militant you know all Blacks are(hum) but had it been the white woman who said that to me, she would be “assertive”. Racism is alive and well and it breeds in the hearts and minds of some of the most intelligent ignorant educated “White” Americans in the. USA. I have got to say not all Whites are racist.

    • jamin says:

      No, not all are, but I really need the ones who are (even subtly, like Juror B37 from the Zimmerman trial) to read this and understand where I’m coming from. And yes, I’ve seen that happen at Macy’s and at Michael’s Arts & Crafts. Whooooo, I was HOT!

  4. ND Johns says:

    Yes fellow unionite!!! Yes!!!

  5. Nik says:

    Totally agree. Well said.

  6. Terry Gladek says:

    Great writing – thank you for sharing your thoughts. I learned something new today. Thank you!!

  7. KT says:

    So, I’m not aloud to question someone I don’t recognize in the neighborhood if they are black and I’m white? Should we all just ignore everything going on around us, only pay attention to ourselves? If a person of color asks what I’m doing, Should I assume It’s because I’m white? I’ve confronted white kids for being on a property I’m pretty sure they had no business being on so in your world that’s Okay because It’s white on white? Would I have been considered a racist if they were black? How do you suggest we work to change this of you are always going to assume anytime someone white confronts you about something it’s because your black? I would hope my neighbours would confront anyone who is not recognized regardless of color.

    • jamin says:

      People have GOT to read what’s actually written. I assume you’re white because you said so, but my example was racist. Now, if I were, say, snooping around, looking at all cars in the lot; trying doors; then that would have been justified.

      That woman parked two spots over from me for 3 months before I changed my tags. I had the old ones in my hands from another state, tag holders, AND THE REGISTRATION…very visible for as close as she was up on me.

      I’m glad you are the watchful neighbor for your neighborhood but this instance was not simply a good neighbor doing her job. If that were the case, she wouldn’t have been nice to me for the next two years out of guilt.

      As for what do to improve this? A good start would be not trying to accuse a victim of racism/prejudice of not knowing what it is when it is fully encountered.

  8. d says:

    So, basically whenever someone white disagrees with you or looks at you funny, its racism. Got it.

    • jamin says:

      When it’s done by someone whose husband clearly saw my switched tags and registration in my hand (and who should have seen me park my car two spots over at various intervals within 3 months’ time), yes. Yes, it is.

      Like I said. A punch in the neck that no one saw or believes.

  9. d says:

    Is it possible that those people are just assholes,. And not racist.

    • jamin says:

      It is possible, but not today. Why is it that whenever a black person has a legitimate charge of racism against a white person, that some people want to disavow that person being part of the group and just excuse their behavior as just being an individual example of being a jerk?

  10. Parnell Marcano says:

    Awesome article! I love the neck punching analogy, spot on!
    I don’t get it with the “Trayvoning” bs. “Tebowing”, is one thing. Making fun of a person’s murder is …..maybe those idiots would understand it, if black folks started “Matthew Sheparding” or “Cory Montiething” Yeah, see? Not funny, that is someone’s child/brother/friend that is dead. Not the newest fad for you and your loser friends to promote.

    Ok,..sorry. I’m done. :c)

    Thanks for a thought provoking article!

  11. KT says:

    Yes, I am white. That said allow me to share my experience. I was working a popular children’s event where we photograph families if front of a very popular children’s character. This character is only available for 10 minutes at a time for photographs. The character comes out and I direct families two one of three tents to sit in front of the character for the photo. Guest wait until I direct them to one of three tents, red, yellow or back. We move almost 100 groups in 10 minutes. I’m busy watching the tents not really paying much attention to who I am directing to the tents. I tell the families to move over to the blue tent, red tent, or black tent. See where this is headed? I’m in the middle of a busy run and I say to the next guest please go to the black tent for your photo. The family does not move so I say again please go the the black tent for your photo. Now the mother of the family is in my face visibly upset. I ask what’s wrong and her response is What did you say to me? I again said please go to the black tent to have your photo taken. Now she’s really upset and about 3 inches from my face. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked what’s the problem? We have 3 tents for photos a black one, a red one and a blue one What tent would you like to go to? At that point she gets rather embarrassed , puts her hand on my shoulder and says I’m sorry. Oh, did I mention she is black? I felt bad because until that moment I had no idea why she was upset. For future events I switched up tents because I didn’t want someone to think I was being racist. You should know that when we started this event we used numbers but made the decision to use colored tents because children recognized colors easier than numbers. Did I do the right thing by changing up the tents? Why should I allow the actions of one person to change the layout of our operation? My preference is to not offend.
    I was once accused of being a racist skinhead because I’m white and shave my head, was wearing khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a red coke tie. The guest was offended by my appearance. I should mention she was black and that I shave due to my thinning hair. I could go on and on with my experiences. I also happen to be gay but I won’t bother to discuss the legal discrimination that exist in our country.

    • jamin says:

      I will concede that sometimes we wrongly read situations as an affront to us because we are always on guard to defend ourselves against it. It makes us hypersensitive. I’m glad you explained what was going on to her and she saw it for what it was. It happens. But as I wrote in my letter, when things happen to you as a group or individually, you will jump to the worst parts first.

      And yes, get a purple tent. LOL

  12. KT says:

    Also, maybe her guilt was That she didn’t recognize you and that The car was yours? Help me understand, Had she ever acknowledged you in the three months that you had parked two cars away from her? And to be clear, I am not accusing you of not knowing what racism/ prejudice is. I do however believe based on my experience that their is a segment of the population that expects to be discriminated against so they miss read situations. I also do believe racial discrimination still exist, just not sure how to stop it. Until we can all view each other as humans and see past skin color, religious affiliation, gender and sexual orientation discrimination will always exist on some level.

    • jamin says:

      We won’t agree on this. She was a jerk and part of the people who didn’t speak to me for 6 months after I moved in. Well, she started speaking the next Monday. I don’t think a case of mistaken identity with a car would lead to the ridiculous amount of niceness she showed afterward. It would have been an apology for not knowing it was my car and not an “Oh…” And a look of “Holy crap! What did I just do?” and holding the door for me when she saw me park my car. She saw me drive to the lot, park, get out…all from her walking to the front door. She held the door open for me while I walked around the building to the front and wouldn’t stop holding it open. She did that repeatedly. Went out of her way over the next two years (until they moved) to be nice. That’s not from mistaken car identity.

      That’s guilt.

      Also, a pillar of this site is dedicated to gay issues, so I am fully aware of that kind of discrimination.

      And you have experience with prejudice, which is tragic, but you can jog down the street in your own neighborhood probably without cops stopping you, asking what you are doing there. I might not always get away with that. This letter was to people not getting how it feels to have an entire system operate against you. There is a new Tumblr that is good to check out: http://wearenottrayvonmartin.com

  13. Kristy Madden says:

    That was so well-written and timely, I’ll be sure to pass it on. I’m a white lady in her fifties, but was born disabled, so have a “taste” of what you’ve experienced. I also just lost a friend of over a decade because nothing I could say would get her to stop ranting about Trayvon, who she insists is a thug. I tried to get her to imagine herself in his shoes, but got nowhere with it. I guess it all comes down to whether you think the world’s problems can be solved with love or hate. I choose love. Keep writing so fearlessly!

    • jamin says:

      Thank you so much, Kristy! This really encouraged me. Some folks won’t ever get that it’s not Oppression Olympics, but just realizing that everyone’s blues aren’t the same, we all have blues, and just giving room for people to tell their stories and grieve with them when they tell them.

  14. KT says:

    Just wanted a better understanding of the situation, I don’t doubt that she was wrong in her assumption. We all need to not jump to the worst conclusion first. As in my situation, if people would not over react and just take the time to understand what’s going on before reacting or when questioned give a proper response rather than just getting instantly angry people would get along much better. Thanks for the tumblr link.

  15. Mia Young says:

    I just want to say this is fantastically written. I’ve been trying to find the words to make pretty much this exact statement on my own blog and you, Sir, have NAILED IT!!! I intend to share this on my own blog (giving you proper credit of course) because it really needs to be heard by so many!

    • jamin says:

      Thanks, Mia! I hope more hear it. Thanks for sharing! It took a lot of thought and prayer to walk the line between informing and dragging. Thanks again!

  16. All I can do is applaud and agree. I’m too displeased in what you so aptly described to say too much else.

  17. I lied. There’s more. I tell people that this is one of my biggest pet peeves:

    I say: “I’m angry.”
    Someone responds: “Oh you’re not angry. You just need to eat something.”

    *record scratch*

    “What?? So you’re going to reject what I tell you? I am an expert on Myself. You’re going to argue with an expert as if I am not the foremost authority on my own experience? Does that mean you believe you are so intimately aware of my inner workings, that you feel sufficiently qualified to refute my first-person account? You are an abject idiot.”

    Most do this casually with no malice intended, and never warrant any rant like the above. But that principle is what’s audacious. One should never invalidate someone’s feelings right in front of them; it’s inconsiderate. To assume you know enough to speak for someone who has not requested your representation is paternalistic and short-sighted. It exposes your shortcomings by revealing that you weren’t even aware of the broad and bright red boundary you crossed.

    Me: “Racism still exists.”
    Abject Idiot: “No it doesn’t. We have a Black president. How can America still have racism?”
    Me: *record scratch* *throws up hands* *turns brownish red* *stifles backhand instinct*

    Your description was flawless. Now I understand why those who claim America is post-racial anger me so. it’s audacious, short-sighted, and presumptuously ignorant. I wouldn’t let ignorance like that slide before, and I don’t plan to start now.

    • jamin says:

      Thanks for your examples! I refuse to be silenced on this even more so now. It’s important to tell our stories and not be shut up.

  18. Dale Shafer says:

    Thanks foe sharing – very we ll articulated. I am one of those white guys who do not see color. I grew up in the South and there are pockets of racism that remain to this day. It always felt wrong in my soul to hear kids referred to by the derogatory of their race rather than their own name. I have always thought it was a sure sign of total ignorance… like a literal lack of basic intelligence.

    It’s not that I ignore color out of oblivion to race; it’s just that I want to believe that we are bigger than race. Unfortunately, it is clear that we are not on any side. Thank you for posting this.

    • jamin says:

      Thanks for reading and the compliment. I want us to be bigger than race, and believe that we are, but we can’t ignore it. When you ignore a giant squid in the room, eventually it’s going to destroy the room. You’ve gotta look that thing in the eye and start harpooning it to pieces to restore the room. I think that we can live with the reality of race and what it brings in America, but decide to make things fair and people have to take responsibility to change their own hearts and minds on it. We can’t not see it, but we can see it and deal with it head-on.

      • Rachel says:

        I’m generally not a hopeless person, but the most hideous part of this is that the people who need to read this and internalize are the ones who will be jumping up and down, insisting they are not a racist and this is not a problem. It seems like one of those problems that can’t be fixed because isn’t always the first step in fixing a problem, admitting there is a problem? Open minded, fair people shouldn’t necesarily have a flood of defensive emotions when reading it. I’m suggesting maybe if that is someone’s response after reading this, they may need to take a deep breath and read it again. Maybe come back again later and read it one more time. Maybe keep reading it until they don’t feel as angered by it?
        And, something else that I have just realized (again after not thinking about it for a few years,) I am married to a black guy, I’m white. I have been told so many times that my husband is SO nice! So many times, in such over the top ways, I would make a joke about why people are so surprised that *I* have a nice husband?! Am I that much of a bitch? While he is the kindest human being I have ever known (duh, love of my life etc..) I always wondered how people knew this after having very brief interactions with him. It’s setting in on me again these last few days, what they are saying is that he is SO nice (for a black guy.) now I’m feeling like I may punch someone in the neck the next time they say this to me. A simple “he seems nice,” is not what I’m talking about. It’s more of an “omigosh! Have you met Rachel’s husband?!! He is SOOOO nice!!” (I approve of him as a person, he doesn’t scare me at all!! Now I can say I have black friends!) This is ugly, in some ways it may even be uglier than grabbing your purse tighter.

        • jamin says:

          I think people overtly defensive about it don’t like how it makes them feel. Being called a racist, as my white history teacher in 12th grade taught my class, is the worst insult you can hurl at a (white) person. Because of the history and how it makes people think, “Well, I haven’t always said things that were racially right. But I’m not a klansman, but still, am I just as bad?” We don’t like to feel icky about ourselves (like owning up to the fact that you have an addiction).

          And yeah, I’m glad you woke up to feel what they were saying! LOL I’ve gotten that so many times. “You’re funny and SO nice!” My friend got the “We don’t think of you as black.” She had to let them know that she was indeed black, born in Africa, and decided at that moment to grow an Afro, which she did. That indeed sucks. Subtle racism is the worst kind.

          • Rachel says:

            Yeah, I woke up to it when I stopped thinking it had anything to do with me and my ability to choose or to deserve such a nice husband.
            But how do people who are so hurt and offended that they may be racist, even begin to work on that? I keep trying to explain it to people, mostly relatives, and I feel like it must be similar to teaching Helen Keller to communicate. No disrespect meant to her, or course. But I think of the movie about her life where she finally understood the teacher signing water in her hand. Something about until she felt the water and connected it to the sign language it just didn’t mean much. I don’t know, the analogy made more sense in my head.
            Like I think maybe I’m completely at a loss as to how this is ever going to be better and so my brain is short circuiting. And to top it all off we live in Florida.

          • jamin says:

            This makes me hurt a bit. I’m glad you’re trying to explain, but I don’t know what else to do but keep trying to teach/reach without being on a high horse about it, but try to gently outreach.

          • Terry Gladek says:

            Bless you. My cousin (living in Pennsylvania) just called me a “nigger” WTF? I thought I was a lover of humanity. Then she had the nerve to tell me she’s not racist, “I just call them like I see them.”

            So, YES, we have a Hell of a long way to go, folks.

          • jamin says:

            WHAAAAAAT?!

          • Terry Gladek says:

            Yep. Which is interesting because we’re white. But in her mind if you support racial equality of any kind…. you get the rest. So disappointed, hurt, shocked, pissed.

          • jamin says:

            Sometimes you just want to shake people until their brains become an ooze.

          • Terry Gladek says:

            So true – you make me laugh – thank you! Fortunately that part of the family lives on another coast (and in another world). Thanks for your kindness.

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