I am a white person.
I am occasionally a little bit clueless.
I am sometimes a bit racist.
Okay, now, hold on, everybody! I’m not, like, proud of that statement. The only people who are proud of that statement … I actually don’t know anyone who is proud of that statement. White supremacists? Hitler youth? No one wants to be racist. That’s why people begin statements that are usually super racist with the phrase “I don’t want to sound racist, but…”
(Tip: If you start a sentence that way, you are almost always going to say something incredibly racist).
I don’t want to be racist. No one actually wants to be a racist.
But I have been known to say or do clueless, ignorant, or hurtful things before, because of a subconscious prejudice against people who don’t look like me.
Do I enjoy the experience of owning up to that fact? Hell, no. It feels fucking terrible to admit that.
But I know it to be true. I have unpacked some of my past shitty behaviors and understood them for what they are. And I’m afraid — no, I mean it, actually afraid — that as educated as I am, as hard as I try to change this about myself, some of that subliminal bias is just never going to be completely erased.
I didn’t occupy a classroom with a black classmate until my freshman year of college. College! Like – not a single black person was around in the small town where I grew up. Everybody looked like me. We were white kids who learned about Hanukkah from the lone Jewish kid, and who didn’t quite know how to handle it when the only Asian kid made jokes about how good he was at math. (For the record, he WAS really good at math).
I made friends briefly with this one girl at a high school Christian leadership camp and that was basically it. She had mixed-race parents and gave really solid advice on how to shave your legs in a shared communal tent with no running water. (Hint: cocoa butter, multiple disposable razors, band-aids). That’s it. Until the age of eighteen, that was the extent of my exposure to actual black people. Spending a weekend hanging out with my new camp friend, listening to shitty Christian rock and signing pledges promising to remain virgins until marriage. (LOLOLOLLLLOL NO BUT REALLY I SIGNED THAT PAPER. We can talk about THAT whole situation on another day).
In the aftermath of the horrifying events in Ferguson, Missouri this week, I’ve done what many of you have. I’ve glued myself to the news and to my Twitter feed. I’ve read through some of the evidence that was released, and I’ve watched the President address the nation. I’ve tried to put my sadness into words, and felt the inadequacy of what words can accomplish. I donated some money to the Ferguson Public Library.
And I read. I read and I read. And I read something really interesting.
There’s this statistic that explains why white people have a hard time understanding what’s going on in Ferguson. This article explains that statistically speaking, white people only ever really hang out with other white people. Like: 91% of white people’s social circles are comprised of other white people. Ninety-one percent!
‘Oh, god,’ I thought. ‘No wonder we have a hard time listening to each other. I can’t imagine having such a limited perspective into the experiences of minorities – only 9%! I mean, it’s a good thing my social circle is wider than that! I’m so glad that my perception of the world around me is influenced by many diverse voices!’
This is the part where I mention, once again, that I am occasionally an extremely clueless white person.
I thought about that statistic for a minute. And then I opened my Facebook page.
I mean, this data is unscientific – it’s using Facebook as a proxy for my actual day-to-day interactions – but it’s a good place to begin.
I have 1401 Facebook friends. I scrolled down the list of their names, making a tally mark next to those who are not white. I did some math. I ran the numbers.
Guys, I’m a liberal white lady who uses phrases like “microaggressions” and “intersectional feminism.” I live in a large, racially diverse city. I know what the phrase “Columbusing” is about. I make works of theatre that address a number of issues, some of which directly explore racial tensions and the black experience in this country. I was pissed when NPR canceled Michel Martin’s “Tell Me More.” I say shit like, “You’re following Baratunde Thurston on Twitter, right?”
And my numbers were actually WORSE than the national average.
My social circle is 91.5% white.
The Atlantic’s graph is pictured below. Mine shook down like: 3% Black, 2.2% Asian, 1.8% Latino, and 1.5% “Other” (which includes my friends of Indian descent and mixed-race descent.) Close enough to the below image to merit posting.
Take that in for a moment, because I’m still processing it. I am trying my best to be the kind of white person who thinks about what it means to have white privilege. And my stats are still really fucking terrible. The majority of voices that surround me are white voices. The majority of the people I encounter in my everyday life are white.
If I’m rocking the 91% … what do the statistics of my former classmates look like? The ones who never left that small town?
What does their view of the world look like? And how is it influenced by the views of those surrounding them?
“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King
My friends are my friends because we share common interests.
I write, and I teach, and I make theatre for a living. Those are my interests. Here are some more of my interests: cheese; women who create their own television series and then publish sassy, funny, inspirational memoirs a la Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham; laying on the beach and gossiping about sex stuff; dance parties; armchair feminist theory.
I have friends who are my friends because we like dancing together and think Janelle Monae is great. I have friends that I call when I need to drink wine and talk about my day. I have friends I teach with, and friends I make theatre with, and friends on whose walls I post really dumb videos of baby animals doing cute things, and friends who send me emails with really smart thinkpieces about the American political system.
Some of those friends are from other ethnic backgrounds than mine. We are friends because we share some of these interests. Not because I like, curated their friendship in some fucked-up liberal quest for diversity. We just started hanging out. We both like Battlestar Galactica. Whatever.
It’s a lot easier to learn about other cultures when you’re learning about them from people you already know and like. I had a black roommate for a year in college, and it was great that I already knew and liked her before we moved in together. It made it easier to ask the tough questions, like, “What’s up with all the cocoa butter?” or “Is THAT why you need a shower cap?” or “Hey, did you leave a Lean Cuisine in the microwave?” It made it easier to transition to the actual tough questions, like, “Tell me what it’s like to be a minority on a predominantly white campus.”
It allows you to learn that people who look differently than you do are …. you know. People. Individuals. Hard to define as part of one giant group.
You think things like, “My friend Michael would love this book!” You don’t think, “My black friend Michael would love this book! You know. ‘Cause he’s black.”
I feel the need to say all of this lest the unsuspecting white person, inspired by this blog post, turn to the nearest black person in the grocery store and say, “Excuse me? It’s come to my attention lately that I statistically only have a small percentage of minority friends. You seem pretty nice, and you’re definitely black, so, would you like to get a drink sometime?”
You definitely shouldn’t do that. That is, in fact, super fucking racist.
And just as a reminder: Having friends who are minorities doesn’t automatically make you not racist. In fact, having minority friends has made me vastly more aware of my own internal racism. So you probably shouldn’t enter an argument with, “But I can’t be a racist because my best friend is black!”
That’s also, frankly, really fucking racist.
“It is difficult for a majority to see, let alone sympathize with, a practice that discriminates against a minority. It’s not unlike trying to get a fish to understand the concept of water! It is simply the medium in which the fish resides, requiring no cognition of the water that supports it. Discrimination–not just individual, but systemic–is the “water” in which the majority swims, and unless something happens to bring that discrimination into the view and consciousness of the majority, nothing will change, because the majority hardly, if ever, notices it.”
–Bishop Gene Robinson, from God Believes in Love
Where were we? Ferguson. Okay.
I am not here to talk about the grand jury process. I am not here to speculate about the possible motivations of the prosecution. I am not here to go full Serial on Darren Wilson’s testimony. I am not here to question why the medical examiner didn’t go buy camera batteries, and I am not here to wonder why the information surrounding the tape at the convenience store was leaked in such a specific and odd manner. I’m not here to talk about whether or not Michael Brown was a good kid, or a bad kid, or on drugs, or a robbery suspect. I’m not here to talk about any of that. It’s a worthwhile conversation, mind you, but not the one I’m interested in right now.
I’m here to tell you instead, fellow white people, that Ferguson is about more than just one scared cop and one unarmed black teenager.
I’m here to ask you, fellow fishes, to wake up and smell the water.
I’m asking you to consider, if you have not already, that the anger and frustration pouring out of Ferguson is outrage at a system of power that does not include minority voices.
I’m asking you to consider the possibility that no one is “playing the race card.” I’m asking you to consider the very real possibility that America is, in fact, a racist place to live. And just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that it is not there.
I’m asking you to imagine what it must be like to experience inequality, every single day, in ways that are sometimes small and subtle and sometimes overt and unjust.
I’m asking you to consider what it must be like to walk home at night and watch white people cross the street, fearful of their own safety. I’m asking you to imagine trying to hail a cab after a long day at work, but no cabs will stop. I’m asking you to imagine changing your name on a job application, because no one will hire you. I’m asking you to imagine telling your children not to wear hoodies when they leave the house, just in case.
I’m asking you to imagine putting your faith in a school system that suspends black students at triple the rate of their white peers, all the while cheerfully preaching the gospel of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but only, mind you, during the designated month of February. I’m asking you to imagine living in a shitty house in a shitty neighborhood, not because you want to, but because you are unable to move elsewhere due to housing discrimination.
And then – and only then, once you think about the everyday reality, once you actually try to imagine living your life without the benefits that being white has afforded you, I want you to consider what it must feel like hear the story of Roy Middleton, who was shot fifteen times in his own driveway because a neighbor assumed he was breaking into his own car. I’m asking you to consider the story of Henry Davis, who was beaten viciously by the Ferguson police department and later charged with property destruction for getting blood on their uniforms.
And then I’m asking you to consider what it must be like, to consider the body of Michael Brown, lying lifeless on the street for four and a half hours, and think, “Michael Brown looks like my brother. Michael Brown looks like my husband. Michael Brown looks like my son. Michael Brown looks like me.”
Because here is the thing, fellow white people. Racism isn’t over because Barack Obama is president. Racism isn’t over because Beyoncé. Racism isn’t over because Oprah. Racism didn’t end when we all read To Kill a Mockingbird in tenth-grade English class, and it’s not over now.
Racism is when you reduce a human being to a series of beliefs, stereotypes, or cultural identities that remove their ability to be seen as a unique individual. Just as you wouldn’t minimize any of my personal problems related to being a woman by saying, “But your problems aren’t real, because Hillary Clinton and Taylor Swift are both doing pretty great for themselves!!” – you cannot argue that having a black president is the hallmark of a country that has moved beyond the issues of race.
Racism is when you equate all black people in Ferguson with the specific few vandals who were looting buildings and smashing windows. Racism is inherent in the word “thugs.”
(Double irony points if you’re using the word “thug” now, but were one of the people celebrating on Broad Street in Philadelphia during the 2008 Phillies World Series win, when cars were burned and windows smashed and storefronts destroyed. I remember that evening well. Back then, we called them “fans.”)
I’m not interested in hearing anyone use the phrase “white guilt.” I’m not fucking guilty, and unless you’ve killed an unarmed black teenager lately, neither are you.
But I am angry. I am upset. I am striving to understand.
I want to think about using the phrase “white compassion.” I want to think about using the phrase “white ally,” or “white empathy.”
Because the truth is, my white friends, many of you have been really great at caring about what’s going on in Ferguson this week. Many of you have been posting and sharing and discussing and questioning and trying to unpack and understand. That’s awesome. That’s probably why we’re friends.
But as Ferguson burned, I also read posts from my white friends about how excited you are for Black Friday deals. Your outrage at FedEx for a misplaced package. Nail art. Weight loss advice.
You are the same people who dumped buckets of ice over your heads for ALS. You are the same people who wear t-shirts emblazoned with “Boston Strong.” You post that same picture of an eagle and the American flag on 9/11. “Never Forget.”
And when the riots began, you were …. instagramming photos of your dinner? Excited about your new H+M sweater? You literally have more to say about The Big Bang Theory than a national fucking tragedy?
I also received several OkCupid messages that night. All from white dudes. No, I don’t want to come to Cherry Hill and eat pizza with you. I’m watching the world burn down.
What that tells me is that, for some of you, the destruction in Ferguson was not a “Never Forget” situation, or a national tragedy, or even something to be particularly concerned about … because the bodies in the streets did not look like yours, or your family’s. Because it looks like “other.” Because the problems faced by Black America are not the same as the problems faced by White America, and therefore, they aren’t worth considering.
Perhaps you don’t see this because your number is closer to 99% than 91%.
White people, we have to do better.
And here’s where I’m going to give some of you the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to assume that you are afraid of posting about this, of talking to your family and friends about this, afraid of speaking out or asking questions or having tough conversations. I’m going to assume that you are afraid of being called a racist. I’m going to assume that you are afraid to talk about race, that you fear that as a white person, your voice is not welcome in the conversation. I’m going to assume that you are operating from a place of fear.
I’m going to assume that all that stuff I said at the beginning of this post, the part where I straight-up owned the fact that sometimes I think and say racist shit — not on purpose, but because of deeply ingrained cultural attitudes — is a scary and hard reality for some of you to deal with.
Some of you aren’t there yet. Okay. Okay.
Say this, then. Say that you are sad. Say that you are sorry. Say that you are grieving. Say that the people of Ferguson are in your thoughts.
Say that you are thinking about what this all means. Say that you are grappling with challenging issues. Say that you are struggling. Say that you are unsure.
Say that you want to live in a country where the American Dream is afforded to all. Say that you are afraid. Say that you are hurting. Say that you are angry. Say that you don’t understand, exactly, but you’ll try to imagine it.
But for fuck’s sake, say something.
Look around, fish.
It’s a very big pond we’re swimming in.