I am a white American, born a year after the Detroit riots and a month before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a child in Pontiac, Michigan, I was bussed from my mostly-white neighborhood to a mostly-black elementary school as part of a legally-compelled experiment in desegregation.
My family moved not long after that, and I spent the rest of my youth in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods around one of the most segregated cities in the world, Detroit. On TV and in the movies, I watched caricatures of blacks and other minorities. King’s dream faded in the shadow of “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “All in the Family.”
Later, Reagan’s Welfare Queen and Clinton’s Superpredator would lodge the stereotype of the urban black criminal deep into the White American psyche, and race matters became something that only black activists talked about. Obama’s election proved to White America that we had become post-racial, even as people of color continued to complain of oppression and mistreatment.
Over the last few years, the subject of race in the United States has risen back into the consciousness of White Americans. The deaths of Treyvon Martin, Eric Garner, and others functioned as the death of Emmitt Till had years ago: to cause some white people to question the post-racial narrative. The recent Presidential election has led many to wonder just how racist portions of America still are.
Race is an uncomfortable topic because racial beliefs are so deeply entrenched in our enculturation. White people of conscience would like to believe that we can end racism by simply acknowledging it and standing against it. It’s not that easy.
I am now one-third of the way through my fifth year as a high school teacher. During the last six years, I have been in urban schools where most of the students are not of white European descent. Some of those schools have had populations that are almost entirely black.
My current school is one of the most culturally diverse high schools in the country: Equal parts black, Middle Eastern, and Bengali. For many of the students, their first language was not English. Most of my students are Muslim.
Despite this diversity, the students themselves get along surprisingly well. Racial slurs are rare, and fighting is based on typical high school drama: Friends of friends who are jockeying for position in in-group hierarchies, not intergroup squabbles. Racial and religious differences rarely lead to open conflicts.
This is only my second year teaching in a predominantly Muslim setting. I was raised Protestant; one of my best friends in eighth grade thought that Catholics were bound for Hell, and non-Christians were completely outside of the realm of discussion. My own family was more tolerant than that, but Muslims were still largely some foreign group that occasionally wandered into our reality.
So when I was first hired, I worried how I would respond. Would I stare at girls wearing hijabs? Would I make culturally insensitive comments? Would I make awkward jokes about terrorism?
The reality is that I got used to it quickly. During Ramadan this year, most of my students were fasting during school hours. I discussed religious sensitivity with a non-Muslim student who couldn’t understand why some of the Muslim students were more irritable than they had been (fasting and modified sleep schedules can mess with a teenager’s moods).
After only a little more than a year, I feel comfortable and confident discussing matters of culture and faith with my Muslim students. I still make occasional errors, but they’re patient with it.
This is in stark contrast to the interactions between me and my black students. More than five years in, there are still times of tension.
It is not in the big picture stuff. I have been called “cut” and “cousin.” I have been given permission to use the n-word, an offer I politely decline. I have interceded on the few occasions I’ve heard non-black students use that word. Most of my black students accept that I’m well-intentioned, with varying degrees of acceptance. My administration praises me for the rapport I have with my students.
But then I catch myself engaging in micro-aggressions or obtuse assumptions. The other day, I made a reference to the TV show “Empire,” and turned to a black student to ask about it. He looked confused: He doesn’t watch the show, either.
A few months ago, I was trying to remember Samuel L. Jackson’s name, and said, “Morgan Freeman… no, I mean the other one.” As if there are only two black actors of any stature, and they come as a pair.
I find myself doing little actions for cookies, trying to prove myself to persons of color, particularly black people. I reflect on how my actions are aimed at trying to get their acceptance as “one of the good ones,” instead of just focusing on how to realign my own thinking.
This is how deep the enculturation runs. After six years of consistent exposure and reflection, as well as living for the last sixteen years in a mostly-black community, I still struggle to overcome my own racial baggage. I have improved greatly, but there is still much work to be done.
Race shouldn’t matter, but it does matter. Racial discord in this country is rooted in a deliberate distraction by rich whites to pit the underclasses against each other, but those roots go back several centuries. Racism should not be an issue, but whites have made it so, and whites have to find a way to end it.
It is easy to question others as being racist. It is easy to be impatient, and blatant racism should never be tolerated. At the same time, though, enculturation runs deep. We do not overcome decades of personal enculturation and centuries of systemic racism by a few months of casual effort.
This is hard work, but it is moral, ethical, and necessary. Slavery ended a century and a half ago, and black Americans have pushed for equality ever since. It is long past time for white Americans to do what is right, as difficult as that may be.
Our baggage may be heavy, and the fix won’t be quick. We will make mistakes and become frustrated. But we must overcome.
If you are not familiar with the old television “comedy” series All in the Family, watch this characteristic clip:
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Photo credit: screen grab from the All in the Family video via YouTube.