I was reading the comments on a Facebook post this morning. The subject was the photograph of a white man in a homemade Halloween costume. The costume was intended to portray a particular black football player who has been protesting police brutality of black people. The costume appeared to me to be intentionally demeaning. Posts on certain subjects tend to draw contentious comments – gay rights being one, gun control, anything to do with politics, and racism, among others.
[There are racial bigots in any racial group. The racism that is the subject here and the subject of national attention is institutional racism. Racism built into the system.]
The photo was posted by someone who saw the photo and considered the costume to be racist. There were comments in affirmation of that view, and there were comments more or less to the contrary. I say more or less because they were generally off the subject. The off the subject comments were about the football player’s wealth and about a sort of equivalency. (There was, of course, the usual, “Whats the matter – can’t take a joke?”) The equivalency I’m referring to is the statement that begins with some form of, “If a white man did the same thing he’d be in trouble” or, “If a black man did the same thing you wouldn’t say a word.”
Such comments are meant to allege an hypocrisy by calling out a claimed reverse racism. The claim of reverse racism is meant to negate any complaint about actual racism. It’s an argument of equivalency meant to silence those who protest unjust treatment of people of color, in this case black people.
The idea that the experience of black people in this country is comparable to that of white people and can therefore be meaningfully interchanged one for the other is patently absurd. To make such an argument sincerely, one would have to be pathologically oblivious to the past 400 years of our history and also to the realities of contemporary society.
If ignorance such as this can still persist at this point in time, after all we’ve been through, I think that it must be willful. The sort of comments I refer to never – and I mean never – speak of racism as if it were fact. Never. The first line of defense for the closet racist is to directly or indirectly deny that our nation has a race problem. And our country has had a race problem from the beginning.
The fact is, we white people don’t have to think about racism. It can be hard for us to see because we’re not affected by it. Not negatively.
Black people are heavily affected. It is a condition that must be taken into account for every area of daily life. They have to think about it. And because of that, they know way more about it. It’s the experience of the oppressed. The oppressor will never understand the experience of the oppressed. The oppressed understand the oppressor very well. They have to.
To understand we have to first care. The information and examples are there for anyone to see. But we have to care enough to begin our education. That education has to come from black people and from other people of color. That’s right. If white people want to learn about racism in our country, we have to listen to the people who suffer under it.
The very impressive and hopeful part of this is that many, many people of color stand ready to do this work of education. There are good books – new and old. There are blogs, Facebook posts and pages, magazine articles, Youtube clips – every form of public media. You might even talk with a black person. Google racism in America. You’ll find serious work; you’ll find apologists; and you’ll find trolls. If you want to jump into the deep end of your education, get a copy of The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander. It is a powerful, heavily referenced history, commentary and analysis.
If any white person sincerely wants to learn about the racism that is built into our society and our institutions, he or she can do it. It isn’t that hard; it can be done. But it will be hard to take. The image in that particular mirror is hard to look at. But if we are ever to have a just society, it must be done.