Let me start by dispensing with the idea that Donald Trump had anything to do with my awareness of Juneteenth. As always, when that ding-dong says “Nobody knew,” what he means was it was news to him. I will readily admit that I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Juneteenth as a holiday, but I’ve been at least dimly aware of it for a while. However, this is the first year I’m actually doing anything for the holiday.
The reason I’m observing Juneteenth is two-fold. First, with everything that’s going on in this country, it seems important to mark the end of slavery in it…or more precisely, the moment when the last group of Black people were told that slavery had been abolished. Second, like any holiday worth its salt, Juneteenth is providing an excuse to gorge ourselves. In our case, we’re pulling out Weaver D’s cookbook tomorrow and are trying some recipes from it. Automatic.
I should also note that Brown University has recently decided to make Juneteenth a paid holiday, which doesn’t hurt. It’s nice to be part of an organization that whatever its flaws, does seem to be trying to do the right thing. They are encouraging us to take this as a day of reflection, thus my sitting down to try and think some things through.
So. White people are the worst, amirite?
*sigh* Not helpful, I know.
Let me try to structure this a bit. First, how have I personally been affected by, or benefited from racism? Second, what can I do to move the ball forward in ending/correcting it?
There’s an image I’ve seen floating around recently. I pulled it from a page on White Supremacy from the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice, though they are not the original authors of it.
There are a few concepts here that I recognize. “Colorblindness” and its variants are one. I couldn’t pinpoint when I wised up to it, but I do remember in college believing in the notion of “I don’t see color.” Another one that pops out is “Fearing people of color.” Yes, I recognize the conflict in that. Had you asked me when I was nineteen if I thought color mattered, I almost certainly would have said no. At the same time, I know damn well I consciously locked the car doors going through certain parts of Kansas City. This is where my time at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman University) served me well. The combination of having a Black roommate for a year, a couple well-chosen history classes, not to mention being exposed to Spike Lee films all helped to open my eyes, at least some.
There are other items in that pyramid where I honestly don’t know if they’ve affected me. Housing discrimination is at the top of that list. Growing up, did we benefit from discrimination, or did it cause us to live in a segregated neighborhood? Maybe? I don’t remember our place in Independence, but our first house in Liberty was on the edge of a heavily Black neighborhood. We moved a few years later to a different house, where I can’t remember a single Black family living. Was that de facto segregation? Similarly, as an adult, have we been steered away from “bad” neighborhoods that were historically redlined? Again, I don’t know.
I do want to focus on “Police Brutality” for a moment, and tell a small story. This is one I’ve told before, but recent events have put a new spin on it.
Back in June 1998, I was working with NCTM on their Standards 2000 project. At the time I was just finishing up a graduate degree in Instructional Systems Technology, and I was part of the team building the new web site. There were some working meetings in the Bay Area, I think Oakland, and I was flown out there to participate. I forget how long I was there, but it was several days at least.
While I was there, a new Prince CD came out (Newpower Soul, if you’re wondering). There was a CD shop down the road from the hotel we were staying at, so I looked up directions on MapQuest and during a break I walked down there to pick it up.
Halfway there, a cop jumps in front of me, points a gun at my face and does the whole “freeze, hands in the air!” bit. Except he actually said something more like “hands behind your head.” I have a distinct memory of being aware I was doing the wrong thing even as I did it, then having to correct myself. Anyway, he made me lie face-down on the sidewalk while he checked my wallet. Then he took me to a police car parked at a gas station nearby and made me sit in the back while some woman around the corner they didn’t let me see had a chance to tell them whether I was the guy who had assaulted her. The whole time as my heart is racing, I’m either explaining that I’m an IU graduate student or trying to figure out whether I should call the hotel or Chandra, who was back in Bloomington. At any rate, the woman must have said I wasn’t the guy, because they let me go and I got my Prince CD.
Now at first, this seems like just a random police encounter, and a case of mistaken identity. But let’s unpack some of it. To begin with, while I found the whole thing alarming, I never felt like my life was in jeopardy. As a White child, my parents never had to give me “the talk” that so many Black parents have with their sons. Second, think back on all the stories of Black men (and women!) who have been shot dead by police for such things as reaching for their wallet, holding a cell phone, or performing some other innocent action. Remember when I said the cop wanted me to do one thing and in my confusion I did something else? What are the odds that had I been Black I would have shot dead on the spot?
Okay, so I can come up with some examples of white privilege, racism, whatever you want to call it. I don’t feel like this affects my daily existence, but maybe it does, and either way it’s certainly there. The next question is, what can I do to combat it, to be anti-racist? Sadly, I don’t have a good answer to that. I can work to better educate myself, and I’m doing that (book club, anyone?). I can give financially, and both Chandra & I do that, hopefully where the funds can do some good. Hopefully these things help, though it doesn’t feel like much.
What I suspect could be the most impactful is also the most difficult, and that’s talking to White people about racism. The problem is the same one that we’ve all been dealing with since at least 2016 if not before, and that’s White People Don’t Listen (#notallwhitepeople). If you know a Trump voter, you know a racist. Hell, if you know a Republican, you know a racist. I can (and do) talk about this stuff with people, but they’re not the ones who need their minds opened up. Sure, there are always things we don’t know and can share, but ultimately most conversations I have around this are preaching to the choir. The White people I know in that racist camp? They don’t/can’t/won’t hear it. That’s the nut I haven’t been able to crack, and I expect will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out.