“…and the third candidate I interviewed was a young black woman,” Aunt Celia continued, “I was just so impressed. She dressed well and she was just so articulate.” At this, Alexander looked up from his plate, repeating her last words in his head: Just so articulate.
It’s not worth interrupting dinner, he reasoned. It won’t do any good. He looked around the dinner table, wondering what would happen if he challenged this subtle parcel of racism. Alexander, a public high school teacher in his early thirties, sat at a large, wooden dining room table with an empty chair to his left and his father to his right. Across the table was his Aunt Celia, sitting between her husband, Ulysses, and her son, Howard. Howard had just begun a new job at his father’s insurance agency. Alexander’s mother sat on one end of the table, and his sister sat at the other. His middle-class, suburban family typically got along well. Dinners were usually a pleasant affair and he didn’t want to interrupt that now. But wait, said an annoying voice in his head, aren’t they always so good-natured because everyone is always too scared to say anything real? He sighed quietly through his nose. That was a good point. It seemed he had to make a choice: Am I about to calmly, respectfully challenge my aunt, or am I about to ignore it? Considering how the latter was a luxury many didn’t have, he quietly sighed again and realized that he had already made his choice.
“You know,” Alexander started carefully, “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but that phrase you used about a black person being articulate… some people see it as a form of subtle aggression. People don’t really usually mean anything offensive by it, but still, it kind of is.” It took a second for everyone to realize he was disagreeing with something his aunt had said, so rarely had that happened at the history of their table. Then it took another second for them to weigh just how rude his breach was. His sister gave a neutral sounding hmm of acknowledgment and appreciation as she took a bite of rice. His cousin Howard, however, cocked his head and bit and furrowed his eyebrows. Before anyone could speak, though, Celia responded.
“I don’t think it’s racist to pay someone a complement like that,” Celia said. She looked down at her knife as she carved her chicken. She punched racist dismissively. Alexander’s parents watched curiously as they ate, resigning themselves to be spectators to this conversation for the time being. This was more or less the reaction Alexander anticipated. “I’ve hired several black people throughout the years, a few of them became my good friends,” Celia continued. She worked in the financial aid department of a local college. This was a response Alexander heard a lot, the equivalent of saying, “I’m not racist, I have black friends!” It made about as much sense as someone saying, “I’m not sexist, I have a girlfriend!”
“Sure, I get that,” Alexander said, “I definitely wasn’t implying that you would do anything intentionally hateful toward black people. The thing is, though, that hate is just one kind of racism, isn’t it? I mean, there is overt, explicit racism, the kind of stuff that makes you think of hate crimes, offensive jokes, or white hoods, but racism can also be really, really subtle and cultural. Only one may be violent, but both are dangerous.” He saw that Howard was opening his mouth to retort. By the look on his face, this was about to take a turn into a defensive argument. Wanting to keep it from going there, Alexander jumped back in before his cousin could speak.
“Hang on, hang on,” he said, holding up a hand and smiling, “I don’t think I explained well!” He paused to collect his thoughts, “Think of it like this: The United States, in spite of our ideals about freedom and democracy, was founded on the extermination of Native Americans and built on the backs of enslaved blacks, right? Both of these were only possible because they were fueled by an underlying sense that white people were somehow superior to others. Over time we’ve challenged and mostly put an end to these explicit expressions of hate-racism, but the underlying idea is a lot harder to get rid of, right? It’s embedded in our culture, like a birth defect or a disease. I’ve read one person call it ‘America’s original sin.’ Now, slavery and legal segregation have come to an end, but those big victories can sometimes blind us to the underlying, subtle, but still harmful, racist old habits of our culture.”
He made a point to look at his Aunt. “The reason I decided to say something just now is because things get worse when we, the people with the power, deny that we have these habits. People get hurt when we ignore the fact that there’s unconscious racism at work. The thing is, though, I don’t think we whites have really noticed our racist habits because they benefits us. We’re doing okay. But if we listen to the black voices getting louder and louder, they’re pointing out the ways our unconscious racism is keeping them down. Take the protests over the recent police shootings, for example…”
“Come on, you can’t use that,” his flustered cousin finally jumped in. “If you don’t do what an officer tells you, it’s your fault when they use force, isn’t it? Why would officers treat me differently just because I’m white?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Alexander said. “It’s really easy for you to say that as a white person who enjoys the privilege of not being discriminated against. It’s easier for you and I to say that because we’re not pulled over all the time or followed in stores. We can send our kids to the park and not be afraid they’re going to be shot. It’s our responsibility, though, to listen to the voices who are saying that is their experience, who are saying that our white experience isn’t the norm. Their experience is different. We have to listen even if it makes us uncomfortable to realize that we’re complicit in a…”
Howard jumped back in. “People get followed when they look like they’re up to something, and pulled over when they’re doing something wrong.”
“See, I think that’s an example of subtle, unconscious racism,” Alexander persisted. “Really, as embarrassing as it may be to admit, to us they look like they’re up to something because they’re black. They’re speaking in a dialect we associate with thugs, or wearing clothes we associate with criminals. That’s another thing, we are assuming our way of speaking and our white, middle class clothes and accents are normal and professional. They’re just what we, as people in power, are used to, so we see them as normal. That’s an example of an implicit bias against blacks that hides in each of our unconscious minds. The only way of really noticing it’s there and doing something about it is by listening to and taking seriously the stories black people are telling. The more I really try to get acquainted with my black students’ experience, the more I find that we have had really different experiences just because of our race.”
He lit up, remembering a conversation he had had recently with the parents of one of his students. “Here is a great example. Do you all know about ‘the talk’ black parents have with their kids?” Alexander directed this last question to the whole room and watched them wiggle uncomfortably. They were all thinking of their answer, but no one wanted to say the “s word” out loud. Everyone, of course, but Alexander’s sister, a college student in her early twenties.
“Like, the sex talk, right?” she asked with ebbing patience for her family.
“No, that’s just it!” Alexander exclaimed, looking at his sister gratefully. “That’s the white version of ‘the talk!’ This is a great example of how our experiences as white people are just so different from a black experience. You can ask nearly any black parent in the United States about ‘the talk,’ and they will tell you that it is a talk they got from their parents and they give to their kids about what to do if they have to deal with a police officer, how to get home safe! Nearly any black parent! And we have no idea! Our experiences are still so segregated! White privilege means that we never have to have that ‘talk’ with our kids, because we who benefit from white privilege don’t live in fear of the police!”
There were a few moments of silence. Alexander realized he may have gotten too excited by the end of that last bit and put his family off. He was about to apologize when his dad jumped in with a smirk and a chuckle. “You keep talking about our different experience, but we all have the chance to make the same choices, you can’t deny that. I mean, the playing field has been leveled. It’s not like it was before the 60’s. People can go to whatever school they want, buy whatever house they want, do drugs or not, drink or not, save money or not, I mean, we all have the same choices to make. I went to high school with several black people who ended up in very different places than I did. I chose not to steal or deal drugs, to save up money, to raise a family, and here we are. You seem to be saying that that option wasn’t available to them, but I can’t buy that.” This time it was Alexander’s sister that spoke in response.
“You have the same choices, sure,” she said, “but they’re not really the same. There was a professor last semester that did this experiment with her class, right? She invites half the class to come in at a certain time to start playing a game of Monopoly. They play for an hour or so, making their way around the board saving money and buying up properties, and after they had gotten a good head start, they invite the rest of the class to join. The rest of the class can play just like everyone else now, by the same rules, but it wasn’t the same for them, was it? The property had been bought! Everybody else had money and hotels and houses! Yeah, the new players started with some money, just like everyone else, but from the minute they start they have no chance of buying property. They have to pay rent at every space, and they’re lucky to make it around the board once without going bankrupt, right? Everybody’s playing the same game, but for some it’s no fun at all, it’s just stressful! Without the other players agreeing to change the rules or give the new players some kind of handout or leg up, or without the new players cheating and doing something against the rules, the new players don’t have much of a chance of doing good at all. That’s more what it’s like. So, sure, you have the same choices, but your experience of playing the game is so so different that it’s not really fair to call the choices the same.”
“Um, that’s awesome.” Alexander said. He had never heard that before. “That seems like a really good way to think about it. And if several generations of players have been playing this same unfair game, it kind of creates a mindset, a set of assumptions, a culture that it’s hard to break out of.” He paused, mulling the image over in his mind. “I heard another example of a high school teacher who told the class that they would be playing a game, and the person with the most points would get a prize. He put a trashcan in the front of the classroom, gave wadded up pieces of paper to everyone in the front two rows, and said they would get one point per shot into the garbage can. They started, but immediately there were protests from the back two rows that they weren’t allowed to have wadded papers to shoot. The professor asked the class if they should make it fair and give the students in the back paper too, and they said yes, so he have them the paper. Still, though, no one from the back two rows could make the shot because they were so far away and there were so many people in front of them. They were also so far behind in points by that time, they had no hope of catching up.
“All that to say again, while it looks like everyone has the same chances, the odds are still stacked against some. Sure, schools were integrated, but the best teachers and equipment still went to the white, suburban schools. Sure, non-whites could get hired at jobs that payed a lot of money, but bosses still largely preferred to hire people that looked like them. Everyone is now allowed to shoot at the trashcan, but the odds are still stacked.”
Celia’s husband, Ulysses spoke next. “You know what frustrates me about all this, though? This generation is so obsessed with being politically correct. It seems like people are looking for opportunities to be offended. It makes it really hard for me to believe that there are actually problems and not just ‘problems’ everyone conjures up.” He put “problems” in air quotes. He had obviously been holding onto this thought for a little while at the expense of actually listening to the conversation. Alexander took a patient breath, but it was his sister that jumped in.
“Stop using politically correct as an insult!” she shot. “The whole idea of political correctness is to try to respect people and make sure we aren’t just casually putting them down by the way we talk about them! The only people who are bothered by being asked to be politically correct are the people who have gotten so used to being in power, and now they’re mad that they have to share it!”
“Which I think is probably all of us here!” Alexander interjected before Ulysses could aim his retort. “It may be that this generation is more sensitive than others and may occasionally create problems where one doesn’t actually exist,” he looked at his sister and shot her a look that he hoped told her to calm down. She closed her mouth and he continued, “but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t real and immediate problems to be addressed. Think about this: if you are in a public school and need to find a band-aid, can you be reasonably sure that they’ll have one that matches your skin tone? If you go to a hotel, can you be confident that they’ll have shampoo that works with your hair? If you interview for a job,” here he glanced back at Cecilia, “you can be confident that the way you speak or dress is going to be considered normal and professional. If you call the police, you’re pretty sure they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, right? This is our, white experience. Blacks in our country are telling us, very clearly, that this is not usually the case for them, and we can see it pretty clearly in the small, band-aid and shampoo examples of what our society calls ‘normal.’ We can’t consider our experience as whites normal, but privileged. We have been holding the power, even if we haven’t let ourselves see it. Our answers to these questions prove that something is very wrong, and it is our responsibility as beneficiaries of privilege to listen, give those we have oppressed the benefit of the doubt, and do something! We can’t just write them off because they make us uncomfortable or we’re frustrated at being accused of not being ‘politically correct.’”
After a moment, Alexander’s dad asked, “Well its kind of hard for us to take it all seriously when they’re out there rioting and looting, isn’t it? Standing in the middle of a highway and blocking traffic isn’t the way to get your point across. You shoot yourself in the foot if you’re trying to get a message out like that.”
Alexander nodded, not making eye contact. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “I suspect they’ve been telling us for years, but we’ve been too comfortable to listen.”
“So you’re saying that’s okay?” his father challenged. “That the rioting and the shooting is all justified?” There was another pause.
“No,” Alexander said softly after a moment. “People have gotten hurt. Violence can never be a solution if our goal is mutual respect and equality. I am just trying to understand, and not write anyone off. If I had a son and he was killed by a police officer, and my neighbor’s son was unjustly arrested, and I knew my grandfather had been attacked by a police dog, if I walked around every day afraid for my children’s wellbeing and knowing the odds of being respected in my society are overwhelmingly stacked against them… how long do you think that tension can hold before something breaks?” The room was quiet for a few seconds. “I can’t judge their violence, because I daily benefit from the system that created it,” Alexander finished, not taking his eyes off of his plate. He thought briefly that this must have been what Jesus meant when he said I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.
“I hope you don’t think I was trying to disrespect you, Aunt Celia,” Alexander said calmly, “or proclaim myself morally superior to you, or accuse you of being hateful. I didn’t want to say anything at all, but I felt like I had to. People keep justifying not saying anything by the idea that our culture just needs more time to evolve, but the thing is when it comes to culture, time is neutral. This isn’t just going to work itself out. The subtle problems will continue to be problems, maybe even working their way into bigger and more overt problems unless they are intentionally challenged. Whites have to repent of the privilege they hold at the expense of others. We have to be dedicated and persistent, that’s the only way change will happen.”
“How do we do that, though?” asked his father, “How are we supposed to ‘repent of privilege?’”
Alexander thought for a moment. “That’s a good question,” he said, “I’m not sure I have a straightforward answer. I suspect that if we pay more attention and start to notice our privilege more, it will become more clear to each of us individually where we use it and how we can give it up. To develop that, I suppose we could better listen to the voices of people of color, even, or especially when it makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we learn to ask good questions of black people rather than assuming we know the answer. Hopefully that will help us learn how to stand up and say something when we see racism.”
He thought for another moment. “Not paying close attention when there is a news story involving injustice against a black person, not listening seriously to the voices of people of color, not saying anything when we notice racism… these are all forms of privilege we should all give up. Maybe it could also mean saying no to things you know you only got because of your privilege and pointing out unfair practices. It could mean abdicating leadership or administrative roles so that people of color can fill that position.” He noticed his dad’s eyebrow furrow. “I know, that doesn’t sound fair, letting someone else get in front of you in line when you’ve worked hard to get there,” Alexander said, “but remember we’re playing a rigged game of Monopoly here.”
Alexander could tell everyone was kind of frustrated. He was trying to keep himself calm and not get angry. He could sense that they seemed more interested in defending themselves than actually opening themselves to change. His mother seemed to be getting frustrated that they could not just enjoy their meal in peace. His father and his uncle were agitated by his suggestion that their concept of the equal opportunities of the American dream was somehow unfair. Howard was getting frustrated because Alexander had challenged Howard’s mother. Celia was difficult to read, but certainly didn’t seem to want to talk about it any further. It was only his sister that seemed to maintain a sense of open, quiet curiosity to the progression of the conversation.
“Could I just suggest something so we don’t start really getting mad at each other? We’ll all be together again tomorrow, right? I think right now all of our egos may be a bit agitated, and no matter what, I think we need to keep this respectful and loving. I want us all to be able to be open with one another and not scared or mad. It’s a complicated thing worth talking about, and if we are too mad to listen to one another it doesn’t do any good. Maybe we should recognize that we should stop here, take a breath, talk about something else, and if we still want to respectfully talk, we can bring it back up tomorrow at dinner. What do you think about that?”
“Fine by me,” Alexander’s mother finally spoke without hesitation. They ate quietly for a minute before she asked Howard about his new job.
“It’s going really well, actually,” Howard responded. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity. Oh!” he started excitedly. “I share a desk with another guy who told me a joke Friday morning, I meant to tell you guys. What do you call a Mexican flying a plane?”
Alexander stopped chewing. Are you kidding me? he thought.
“A pilot!” He looked at Alexander. “You thought I was going to say something racist, didn’t you?” He grinned.
Alexander just put his forehead down on the table.
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