The most powerful way to oppose systemic racism? Just say hello.
I remember very clearly President Obama’s first election campaign back in 2008. As a white male Obama supporter, I had that fine hat with the campaign logo right there on the front of it. And when I wore that hat down the street, something I have never experienced before or since happened. I would walk down the street and black people, young and old, male and female, would smile at me. And I would smile back.
And it felt like this: “How are you today? Very well, thanks, how are you?”
I don’t mean to say that black people on the street don’t smile at me sometimes. But this was different. My Obama campaign hat cut though all the bullshit. It said, “I would happily have a black man as my President.” And because I was communicating a simple unambiguous statement, I could say it without any of the doubts or concerns that plague us white men when we try and dance around the issue of race.
I miss those days, because no matter how much I try and be open to the opportunities, I’m still not talking to black folks very often. The fact is, a lot of us aren’t talking, black, white or brown. We Americans look at each other, passing on the street, across the gulf of race and culture, and we pass on by in silence. It’s time for this to end.
The bigots and the racists are talking loud and clear. The Tea Party; those guys. We hear from them with their coded Southern Strategy language about voting rights and cultures of dependence.
But why is it so challenging for the rest of us to talk about race in America, at a time when everyone is calling for this conversation to happen? I can tell you why. For me, it’s because I simply have a better deal in life based on my skin color. There’s no denying it. If Trayvon had been a white kid, he’d be alive or George Zimmerman damn sure would be in jail. And since the acquittal of Zimmerman, for following Martin, picking a fight with him and then gunning him down, the stories of what it feels like to be African American are finally getting real media attention, including Obama’s own story.
There’s the simple but haunting story of black women getting “Sunday ready” to go shopping. Literally putting on their Sunday best in order not to be followed around like would be shoplifters or second class citizens when they go into a store. And there is Star Trek: Next Generation actor Levar Burton’s story of how he behaves when he’s pulled over by the cops as reported by Think Progress. Burton says:
“Listen, I’m gonna be honest with you, and this is a practice I engage in every time I’m stopped by law enforcement. And I taught this to my son who is now 33 as part of my duty as a father to ensure that he knows the kind of world in which he is growing up. So when I get stopped by the police, I take my hat off and my sunglasses off, I put them on the passenger’s side, I roll down my window, I take my hands, I stick them outside the window and on the door of the driver’s side because I want that officer to be relaxed as possible when he approaches my vehicle. And I do that because I live in America.”
And then, there’s this:
CNN’s Don Lemon recounts similar experiences, with people often stopping him on the street in Louisiana to ask, “Where’d you get that car, nigga? Whose car is this?” He recounted one experience driving with a white friend who said after a police stop that he’s never had the police deal with him like that. “I’m like hello, welcome to my life,” Lemon said.
Don Lemon’s story, like so many others, is bookended by how his white friends are surprised at what he has to go through. These are the man’s WHITE FRIENDS. It’s a level of white privilege that is eye-opening because it suggests the following: that African Americans are so used to this treatment that they don’t even mention it in conversation. This is standard operating procedure.
The Think Progress Article goes on to say this:
In 2011, the New York Police department made more stops of young black men than the entire population of young black men in New York City. And while police stops continue overwhelmingly against blacks and Hispanics, stops of these minorities are half as likely to garner weapons, compared to stops of whites. Just last week, the Department of Justice released a two-year investigation of the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department that reveals egregious and disproportionate police targeting of blacks and Hispanics. This racially skewed policing starts early with high rates of suspension and disciplinary infraction arrests among school children, and ends with 1 in 15 black men in prison – many of whom have disproportionately longer sentences.
Meanwhile, I’m asking a passing black man to stop and chat? Maybe commiserate on how shitty it is to be guilty until proven innocent every day of your life?
And finally there’s this: I didn’t ask to be born white, to be born with all this privilege. But ask me if I would give it up for myself, or my son?…. (crickets). Because we all live in a savage Darwinian economic system where any one of us could end up on the street and nobody would give a damn.
In being cut off from each other, in living with the silencing that systemic injustice creates, we have been stripped of our community. We are all isolated. So we think our only choice is to compete like dogs for what little economic security there is. We live our gated community strategies in our heads, even as we stress and fret over the terrible state of race in America. We know the body count is too high. There are simply too many wounded and dead black kids. Yet, what will the conversations that break this silence look like?
White Guy: “Hello.”
Black Guy: “Hello.”
White Guy: “I’m interested in connecting in a more substantive way with black people. Teach me about race.”
And what exactly is wrong with this picture? What isn’t wrong with it? Why is the white guy asking the black guy to explain anything? What’s going on in the world is pretty obvious. We all know how to Google, right? But more importantly, who in their right mind would want to have this conversation?
So, what will these conversations look like? Seriously.
Back during Obama’s first run, his campaign hat allowed me to clearly state my position without adding in a lot of poorly informed white liberal assumptions about what African Americans were thinking about life, about me, about white people in general, about American culture, about anything. The challenge of living in a society rife with racism, is we never know what is being assumed about us, while, we are busy assuming stuff about others that is inaccurate and untrue. Why is this? Because we have no first hand data. Because racism silences everyone, terrible long silences that last for generations, centuries. And it’s in those silences that society loses its way.
George Zimmerman was a puffed up little man whose gun made him feel important. A regular Barney Fife. (A term my dad used to describe overzealous cops back in the day.) A funny image if it wasn’t so sickeningly real. Zimmerman wanted to be a gated community hero, so he invented a bad guy out of a 17 year old kid walking home. He was told by the police to not follow Treyvon Martin, but he did so anyway. He wanted to use his gun. To feel the weight of it in his hand. To be a big man. And a kid died because of it.
So the Obama moment is over. It’s good and gone. Because these Stand Your Ground laws exist in over 30 states even as Obama sits in his second term in the White House. And there is no hat for this. No symbol I can adopt to tell every African American on the street that I’m disgusted by the paranoid gated community bigots who are obsessed with home security and their heavy blue metal guns, which, unlike actually connecting with other human beings, will not keep them safe.
We continue to face a terrible race problem in America, in large part, because we are not talking. The time for standing on the sidelines is over. We can’t keep skating by. Skipping the moments that require some personal courage. Yes, we’re shocked by the Zimmerman verdict. Stunned by how fundamentally flawed it is. But we need to start speaking now. All of us. Black, white, and brown. Because, “I’ll wear the Obama hat, but please keep your distance” isn’t going to cut it. We have to know that. Until we break the silence and start talking, connecting and living together, the whole country is going to feel like a prison.
And maybe, this time, the place to start isn’t the big heavy stuff. Maybe first, we all need to push into the millions of little human conversations that are normal and everyday. That say, “I see you. I acknowledge us. I’m human, too.” We need to bridge the gaps between us at the market and on the subways, in schools and on the street. We have to put an end the idea that we haven’t got anything to say. We all have so much to say. We all do. We have to change the way we view the first moments of contact. Instead of leading with our fears, we need to assume that the next thing we say to someone unlike ourselves will be a real connection and a good moment.
If we’re going to end “Stand Your Ground,” we need to start with “Hello.”
More on the Good Men Project by Mark Greene
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