By Liz Brazile
After several years of banging my head against the wall upon seeing the old American proverbs of “it (racism) goes both ways” and “slavery ended 300 years ago” in social media comment sections, I think it’s time we address an uncomfortable truth: the watered down, Cliff Notes unit on racial inequality you were taught in elementary school was a lie. And now it is your responsibility to relinquish your outdated understanding of black and white race relations and investigate deeper.
What do Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., segregation, and slavery all have in common? They’re all talking points in social studies classes when the unit on racialized historical conflicts rolls around—and that’s if it ever does. We learn that the most important faces of the Civil Rights Movement were an exhausted seamstress who refused to give up her bus seat and a reverend who just wanted little black kids and little white kids to be friends. We learn that Slavery was merely unpaid labor black folks did for white folks and that segregation was a result of blacks and whites equally wanting to shut each other out of their spaces. We also learn that black people won a bunch of rights and lived happily ever after without any lasting generational trauma, and that the doing away with overtly racist policies meant people just suddenly did away with their racist ideologies. And last but not least, my favorite: that racism is as simple as not liking someone because of their skin color, and therefore any of us is capable of perpetuating it—never mind the economic oppression, political control, or any other systemic roadblocks to upward mobility that no group in America other than white people could possibly have the power to impose on an entire people.
Well I’m here to tell you that slavery only ended a few great grandma’s ago and my grandparents came up in the Jim Crow era—which was not about willful segregation, but rather white fear of miscegenation and black economic progress. And, the Civil Rights Movement was propelled by nameless, faceless black folks who didn’t always garner fame or white approval—alive or posthumously.
If you’ve made it this far without angrily clicking out of this article and deeming me that racist black chick who hates white people, you’re on the right track. My beloved white people, here’s what you have to understand: you have the (white) privilege of allowing your comprehension of race in America to end at what you learned about in school; black people don’t. What we don’t learn in school about racism could be, at best a serious social impairment and at worst, a wrongful death waiting to happen. By that, I mean we are forced to learn to adapt to an anti-black world, while maximizing opportunities and minimizing harm.
I learned as a young girl that I am not allowed the same range of emotions afforded to my white counterparts. God forbid I experience a bad day at school or work, lest I want to be labeled as “the girl with the attitude problem”. I also learned that no matter what level of rapport I’d thought I’d built with an authority figure, I wouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt when I needed it. When I was second grade, my “best friend’s” mom, who taught our computer class, kicked me out for a week because my computer stopped working and I must’ve “done something” to it—despite the fact that I’d been to her home multiple times and she and my mother had become quite cordial. I learned early on to monitor every move I make in public spaces so as to not arouse suspicions about my inherent suspiciousness. To this day, browsing while black makes me uneasy.
Some of you will say, “Well why not just ignore those people?” or, “Who cares what those ignorant people think?” But it’s deeper than that. I have to be on high alert about what people think about me because if I don’t defy what anti-black stereotypes would have them think about me, it could cost me greatly. The very act of me writing this essay is a risk.
So many of us have a hard time wrapping our heads around current race relations in America because we haven’t grasped the true history of race relations in America. As children, we have in our minds that the 1800’s and 1960’s were so long ago. And as adults, we don’t swap out our child-like perception of time for a more realistic one. The same ones saying “life is short” are the same ones who can’t comprehend that 60 years is not that long ago in the grand scheme of history.
Anytime an unarmed or legally armed black person dies at the hands of police, we hear a thousand reasons why it was justified and are told to simply “follow the law” if we wish to stay alive. Yet, when a young white man meets his end due to his failure to “follow the law”, he becomes an American martyr. To understand why this happens and the subsequent implications, one must first understand how disposable black life has been throughout American history.
We do not live in a post-racial society. We live in a post-socially-acceptable-to-be-openly-racist society—although that is changing under our current presidential administration. Until you’re willing to have an honest conversation with your black friends about their lived experiences and study the many examples of how systemic racism functions, you have nothing meaningful to contribute to the discussion on present-day racism in America.