As our blogosphere has been flooded with stories of the brutal mistreatment of young Black people by the police, I’ve heard many white friends talk about another friend’s or colleague’s egregious remarks and how angry they were, but that they bit their tongue. I’ve heard friends say they are not posting about Ferguson or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Baltimore or McKinney or Kalief Browder or [fill in the person of color] because they don’t want to upset people or get into “a whole political discussion”. I’ve seen still others post “can’t we just all be friends?” comments that point to the goodness in all people, which I too believe in, but in these instances I can see it is being used to shut down a conversation that is making them uncomfortable. I see people trying to change the conversation from #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter so that we white people are no longer held accountable for our own racism. I see this all happening and can tell that, as a group, white liberals have made a semi-conscious choice: we are not rocking the boat; we won’t upset or confront other white people; we refuse to take in any information about our own racism. When we do this, we may not feel as though we’re making a choice, but what we’re actually doing, little by little, is prioritizing our own social comfort over equality, justice and the lives of People of Color.
You see, along with all the wonderful things our Good White Parents taught us, they also taught us that it was important to be nice and polite and non-confrontational when dealing with the white racists we know. We learned to just ignore grandpa. We were reprimanded when we challenged Aunt Evelyn. We were coached before going into parties that people might be racist, but that was just their “point of view”. We were taught again and again that it was more important to keep the peace with family and friends than it was to stand up to racial injustice. This made sense to us because we understood that arguing with family or friends would likely cause us more immediate discomfort in the short term than racial injustice would.
Observing the adults who told us that racism was wrong sit quietly while other adults said racist things taught us to tolerate racism. Seeing them get angry at or shush or tell us we were being impolite when we called grownups on their racism, taught us to tolerate racism. Watching as children while our parents who spoke to us about standing up to racial injustice, disassociated and acted as though someone farted in the room when their friend from work told a racist joke, taught us to tolerate racism. It is our generation’s task to undo this teaching so that we do not teach the same thing to our white children.
Not only did we learn to tolerate racism from these interactions, it was also this small opening, this little space where our racist uncle got to say terrible things, which led him to believe he had a valid point of view–equally as valid as ours. He didn’t. Everyone else in the room knew that, but we allowed him think he did.