Step by step on our long journey

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

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.

Safe travels. 


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Reader Comments

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Ramona Lopez  

Posted: February 4th, 2019 5:43 PM

"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" It's statement like this that got us the crazy man in the white house. Middle America and communities that are practically all white don't have much "white privilege", since they are pretty much, the only people living there. How does a guy in the middle of Iowa, where there isn't a person of color for hundreds of miles have "white privilege"? The same can be said for Japan. When Chinese immigrants arrive to Japan, they are not treated very well. The term should be "majority privilege". It is NOT unique to white people.

Rachel Stark  

Posted: February 4th, 2019 4:30 PM

Bruce Kline, actually policies like Affirmative Action assume POC are equally competent and deserve equal access to opportunities. Opportunity and competency are conflated in your argument.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: February 4th, 2019 12:39 PM

Well Ken your little "embarrassing episode" is precisely due to the well meaning liberal progressive policies you so often advocate. Those policies implicitly assume that people of color are in fact less competent. So no Ken, your "low expectations" are not a "form of unconscious bias" at all. Quite the contrary. Your low expectations are in fact the results of the quite conscious policies - such as affirmative action - that you and other progressives vehemently support.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: February 4th, 2019 11:34 AM

Get a life! I was a teen back in the 50's and that was a different time. Two white guys had a radio show where they parodied blacks. Amos and Andy would never fly today but in it's day it was funny. Part of aging is becoming adult. In the army you didn't care what color the guy who "had your back" was and you couldn't not cover his when it was your turn - becoming an adult. When you went to work you cooperated with and got along with those who were different from you but you got the job done - becoming an adult. Those folks who are your neighbors don't always look like you but when they need help, you pitch in - becoming an adult. We all have those little feelings from our childhood that will always be there but, adults know that is a part of adulthood I feel it is a monumental waste of time anguishing over what someone else might think. Louis Farakahn has suggested that God wants us to provide an independent state exclusively reserved for blacks. Isn't that where we were 100 years ago? I bet his plan also calls for whites to pick up the tab. That is certainly not being an adult.

Martin A. Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2019 11:30 AM

Thanks for this, Ken. I too have recently been examining my conscience about how I've approached people who are not of my ethnicity, and have similarly redoubled my efforts to melt my hidden prejudices and be proactive about relating to people simply as people. On another note, I must admit to being amused at your aside: "(my memory specializes in subjecting me to vivid indictments from my past that I can't deny)," however!

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