Don Roach: We’re Still Ignorant On Race

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


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Last week I tried to make sense of the whole Trayvon Martin situation. I was hoping the conversation wouldn’t devolve into this:

What I think we, as a country, need to own is our own bias when things like this occur.

And what we shouldn’t do is fall into the trap of ignoring race or saying that the only factor in this case is race. Two extremes that make it easy for us to miss some of the relevant issues.

And then I spent the rest of the week wading through articles, television shows, blog comments, and random tweets which showed our individual biases and dare I say, ignorance.

Complete and unabashed ignorance, the likes of which I thought we were several decades beyond.

For every article that supported Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in their efforts to address the issue there were a number of other articles calling them “race pimps” and “race baiters”. On the other side, I was equally disappointed in comments like there is “no justice for blacks” in this country. Really?

It was frustrating to read national commentators and my own friends and family speak in such matter of fact tones about the issue. Again, on one side you had people who said “Trayvon was expelled from school and looked suspicious that night” and on the other hand you had (paraphrasing) “Trayvon was just a little boy who had never done anything to anyone and wouldn’t hurt a fly”. There were very few people in the middle and if they were out there they were staying as far from these conversations as possible.

This was a common conversation last week:

Black Person: I can’t believe they let Zimmerman off the hook.

White Person: Justice was served. The evidence wasn’t there.

Black Person: What are you talking about? A black kid got murdered for doing nothing and the dude who did it is free.

White Person: Martin instigated the fight and Zimmerman feared for his life. If I had a gun, I would have shot Martin too!

Black Person: That’s why I’m afraid to WWB in this country.

White Person: WWB?

Black Person: Walking While Black.

White Person: Why are you always pulling the race card?

Black Person: Because this country keeps renewing my membership.

And on and on these same conversations went last week never leading to anything positive or constructive. The only thing I’m left with is that we are a nation that is totally ignorant about race in the 21st century. We ig’nant as they say. We don’t know how to deal with and I’m not convinced that many of us want to. But for those that do, please keep reading.

Three steps to eliminate racism

The first thing we need to do is put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Last week, we didn’t do that as a nation and hurt feelings and biases showed themselves. If you’re a black person try to see the situation through the lens of a white person. I’m not suggesting that it’s comfortable or easy, but if we really want to be a country that is free from racism we’ve got to be able to have empathy for someone who doesn’t look like us, talk like, act like and then be able to experience what they are going through. Belittling someone’s opinion by saying they are just pulling the race card or can’t understand because their race has “oppressed us for centuries” doesn’t solve anything. It just perpetuates racism.

That’s Step One.

Step Two is being able take ownership of our crap. I had an interesting conversation with a friend who essentially said “I don’t care if you’re an Ivy League grad, dad, and/or taxpayer, if you fit the profile of people who have been burglarizing the neighborhood you’re going to be profiled”.

Seriously? I’ll put it a different way in hopes that the mass of you understand the ridiculousness of that statement. I’m just going to rattle off some names. Charles Manson. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy.

What’s common about these guys? They are all white male serial killers. So, does this mean we need to consider that any white man is a potential serial killer and need to hide our kids if we see one walking on the sidewalk?

Of course not. But why is that so ridiculous but people feel Zimmerman had every right to profile Martin or any other black man who happened to be wearing a hoodie that night? The reason is we believe that not every single white man is a serial killer and thus we do not automatically think when we see one, he’s up to no good. That same level of benefit of the doubt needs to be given to a random black person walking along the sidewalk even if you had an experience where a person who was black did something to you (I’m talking to you Paula Deen).

But, if you are having trouble doing that, allow me to repeat step two – OWN YOUR OWN CRAP. That bias is yours and yours alone. Whether it was me wearing the hoodie in Florida (as you all know it was raining that night) or the worst criminal in the history of man, if we continue to make assumptions and judgments based upon the color of someone’s skin, racism will be with us for eternity. Period.

So we’ve got to own and admit what we honestly believe.

And finally Step 3 is opening up ourselves to the unknown. This involves putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation. If you’ve already done Step One you’ve at least tried to think about what it’s like to be a black or white person – depending on your perspective. But, the final step in overcoming racism is allowing yourself to be influenced by others who do not look like you.

What’s the practical application? Place yourself in situations where you’re not in your comfort zone. For example, if you’re a black person who thinks, “East Greenwich is only for white people” and you fear getting pulled over by a cop because you’re black, go to East Greenwich and see that the cops are only going to pull you over if you’re doing something wrong.

I’m serious, go try it.

Until we are willing to empathize with others, admit our biases to ourselves, and place ourselves in uncomfortable positions to learn that black/white people are not scary monsters every time a racialized situation comes up in this country we will simply fall back to what we “know” and, sadly, stick to “our own kind.”

Our children will adopt our ignorance and in 50 years we’ll still be talking about race.

Don can be reached at [email protected]


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