By Ken Trainor
The film "Green Book," nominated for Best Film this year, is based on an actual guide used by African Americans during the Jim Crow era, advising them on where they could safely sleep and eat during their travels through a perilous prejudiced landscape.
It got me thinking that white Americans could use a different kind of guidebook — for those perplexed about safely navigating a culture of heightened racial sensitivity. A personal (and interpersonal) guide to traversing the dangerous landscape within, via careful self-examination, starting with the admission that we all have racism within us because we grew up in a society created largely by white people who had far too much racism within them.
This is just a beginning. I encourage others to add to this guidebook.
Step 1: Listen to what people of color are telling us. Unconscious bias? White privilege? White supremacy? Micro-aggressions? Systemic racism? All are real and every white person in America has been influenced, if not implicated. The Black Lives Matter movement has done a great service by educating us, because awareness is the first step toward progress.
If we think we've come far enough as a white-dominant culture, we're kidding ourselves.
If we think we "don't see color" when we look at a person of color,
If we think we're living in a "post-racial" society,
If we think this is just a bunch of politically correct hooey and liberal guilt,
If we think we don't harbor unconscious biases,
If we think we don't benefit from white privilege because we're not a member of the wealthy elite and have to struggle like everyone else to make ends meet,
If we think we don't have racism in us, we're kidding ourselves.
My soul-searching since Ferguson, Missouri (2014), has dredged up far too many instances when I came up short — sometimes painfully short — but rather than wallow in my embarrassment, it has made me more determined to improve and pay it forward.
Step 2: Our "sample size" is too small. Many of our unconscious biases are learned — from family, through the media, through self-segregation, through lack of interaction. But attitudes are also formed by lived experience. We generalize about people based on that experience. We meet or pass people of color every day. We have opportunities to reach out, extend, connect, if only to say hello in passing. Negative stereotypes are based on a sample size too small to be valid. They do not survive engagement with the beauty of people of color.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were the only, or one of the only, white persons in a crowd? I have, and learned how incredibly open-hearted and welcoming people of color are. The wider my sample has grown, the more that perception has been confirmed.
Step 3: Are we operating on a double standard? When affirmative action was first introduced decades back, the opposition focused on the unfairness of being forced to choose a less competent African American over a more competent white person. The assumption seemed clear: Black Americans were less competent. Do we assume a white person is competent until proven otherwise, and a person of color is less competent until proven otherwise? Do we accord respect to white people automatically but to people of color only when they have "earned" it?
I've caught myself (it's embarrassing to admit) being "pleasantly surprised" when a person of color exceeded my expectations in a transactional situation. Not-so-pleasantly surprised, however, when I realized that my low expectations are a form of unconscious bias. Am I the only one? I doubt it. How often does that affect white employers in their hiring decisions? Too often is my guess.
Step 4: Connection is humanizing. These days, I assume up front that every person of color I meet is a person of quality, and I am rarely disappointed. If people of color feel uneasy around white Americans because of the many times they've felt dissed, discriminated against, or outright dehumanized, it's understandable. We demean people of color in subtle ways and don't even realize it. But in spite of the disrespect they have endured, in almost every case, if I extend myself, with a hand, a hello or a smile, that guarded reserve dissolves.
Yet whites often seem uneasy around people of color — maybe worried that we're going to say something insensitive and be branded a racist. But our uneasiness is itself dehumanizing. We keep our distance instead of reaching out. We don't make eye contact on the street, too seldom say hello. Dehumanizing someone in ways we're not even aware of also dehumanizes us. Are we living in a self-created diversity desert? Are we depriving ourselves of the remarkable beauty of people of color?
Becoming aware of our attitudes and uneasiness gives us an opportunity to change them. Denial and defensiveness, on the other hand, locks us into dehumanizing patterns.
Step 5: We're going to make mistakes. It's inevitable, but it's also the path to progress. Listen to people of color when they talk about their experience with white Americans. If you say something insensitive, you may not have intended the slight, but the other person, who may have a long history of enduring slights, feels demeaned. Given our appalling history as a white-dominant culture, it's on us to be gracious. Thank that person for making you aware of it.
I'm as guilty as anyone (my memory specializes in subjecting me to vivid indictments from my past that I can't deny). It's humbling, but a healthy humbling. Many white Americans are trying hard and are much further along than I, but we wouldn't be in our current predicament if we weren't all in some way complicit in a flawed social system that is fundamentally unfair to people of color and makes their lives harder than they ought to be.
It's not right and has gone on too long. Acknowledging our part in all this is more constructive than waiting for "them to accept personal responsibility and pull themselves up by their bootstraps," as some white Americans still tell me "off the record." We don't all begin from "the same starting line" (which I also hear).
We're on a shared journey of discovery.
On the road to a better country.
Answer Book 2019
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