By Stephen Shelley
Why is it so awkward and difficult for whites in America to discuss the institutionalized racism that is alive and well in our society? Reasons include denial, a lack of exposure to diversity, and a vested interest in the belief that racism is a relic from a troubled time in our nation’s history. If you’re white in America, you don’t want to admit the actual state of racism because you know you are in many ways, directly or indirectly, responsible for the ongoing problem. Many whites hold to the notion that they had nothing to do with slavery, and therefore they take no responsibility for what happened 150 years ago. To be fair, blacks in America today had nothing to do with slavery either. However, their ancestors did, and the residual effects continue in various forms to this day.
For many who are white in America, it’s easy to say, “We’ve come so far, racism is barely a problem anymore.” If you are a minority in America, the answer is different. The country is better off than we were in the 1960s, as far as the laws we now have on the books. But legislating equality between the races is easy compared to changing people’s attitudes about race, discrimination and equal opportunity for all.
Racism is defined as discrimination based on one’s skin color—so this could also encompass blacks being racist towards whites. Despite the literal meaning of racism, there is a theory that it is impossible for a minority group to be racist toward the majority—racism is all about power and you must have it to practice racism.
Evidence of this theory came out during testimony in the Trayvon Martin trial when Rachel Jeantel stated Trayvon Martin called George Zimmerman “a creepy ass cracker.” Most whites didn’t seem to be offended and actually thought it was funny. When you’re in the majority, you’re not threatened. In contrast, when Riley Cooper of the Philadelphia Eagles addressed a black security guard using the “N” word, the effect was disgraceful and oppressive—no other word in our society invokes such hateful, harmful connotations.
A good friend of mine asked a person of color what whites could do to bring equality to those suffering from inequality. The answer? “Speak truth to power.”
Speaking truth to power means everything from lobbying our representatives to change policies such as having to show an I.D. to vote, or working to bridge the gap between salaries or abolishing “stop and frisk” policies, all of which target minorities. It also means calling people out when they tell racially motivated jokes or make racial slurs born of ignorance.
So what can whites in America do to end inequality and racism? Acknowledge the existence of racism and then work toward a solution in an honest dialogue between people of different heritages—a dialogue in which we identify the issues that keep us from living together in a world devoid of discrimination and oppression based on the color of people’s skin.
How do we change people’s view of other races and live with each other in harmony? While legislation can do much to bridge the gap of racial inequality, the key is to change the experiences members of each race have with each other. For example, when a white man meets a black man on a sidewalk and fails to make eye contact or crosses the street to avoid the situation, it lends itself to the negative experiences of both and perpetuates the stereotypes ingrained in the psyche of both parties.
When a white person in America says racism barely exists anymore it’s much like a wealthy person refusing to see poverty as an issue in our society. When these people make such comments, what they’re really saying is, “Racism and poverty is not a problem for me.” My hope is that we can all come together in the realization that equality doesn’t just benefit one race, it benefits the human race.
Stephen Shelley is a Stapleton resident who is a freelance writer.