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Read this: Between the World and Me

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

TaNehisiCoates

I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and I have to agree with Toni Morrison’s review that this book “should be required reading” — for black and white people alike. Coates paints a powerful portrait of his life as a black man and the never-ending fear and mistrust–of the police, of the ghetto, of white people–that constantly accompanies those who inhabit America’s black bodies.

This beautifully written, gut-wrenching book is a letter to the author’s son, who is 15 years old and upset about the lack of criminal charges for the killer of Michael Brown. Coates writes about this unfairness and the full weight of having a black body, what it meant for him growing up and what it means for him now as a father. Though his son was raised far from the mean streets of Baltimore where Coates grew up, he knows even that doesn’t protect him from the harsh realities of a white man’s world.

“You know now, if you did not know before, that police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does mot matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detaining, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”

I have been doing my best to educate myself on race but it wasn’t until I read this book that I felt like I got an actual glimpse of what racism does to a person. I felt Coates’ fear for his life as a child in Baltimore and realized that the biggest danger to my body growing up was horseback riding. I, like most of you, do not know what it is like to memorize which streets to avoid in order to survive. Like you, I was taught that the police were my friends–there to protect my safety–and not to cower in fear at their presence. When I was ten, my chief concerns were building forts and playing softball–not whether or not I would make it home from school alive.

One of the central themes of the book is the killing of Prince Jones, a fellow student at Howard University, who was gunned down–unarmed–after police misidentified him and followed him in an unmarked vehicle at night. Coates sits down with Jones’ grieving mother and writes:

“She alluded to 12 Years a Slave. “There he was,” she said, speaking of Solomon Northrup. “He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.” 

Coates refers to white people throughout the book as “Dreamers”–or those living the American Dream (or illusion thereof). It’s not a comfortable book to read for us Dreamers–there were times when I wanted to scrape the white off my skin in shame. Confronting racism is never going to be easy, especially when you have benefitted–no matter how unwittingly–from it. It’s true that you and I did not create this racist world. We had no say in slavery. But we do have a say now. We have the power to own racism and to change it.

This book is written for the Black reader, but there is so much to be taken from it if you are white. We need to wake up to the fact that our dreams have been built on the back of Black bodies. Is this shameful to admit? Yes. Will it make us feel badly about all that we have because of it? Probably. But we must. We simply must join the struggle for equality, even if by simply owning up to the role that we play in a system that is so drastically unfair.

As Coates writes, “Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”

Please be brave enough to read Between the World and Me and follow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ journalism feed at The Atlantic.

Watch this: “Color Brave” Ted Talk

Mellody-George

Us white people love to say that we are color blind. What we mean is that we aren’t racist–or at least strive not to be–and that we don’t judge people based on the color of their skin. “I don’t see black or white–I just see people,” someone might say. And I understand where that sentiment comes from, having thought it myself. I get it. I like to think that I don’t judge people on the color of their skin, so therefore race is not an issue to me.

But, therein lies the problem–saying that you have to be color blind to appreciate Black people is saying that black skin is not the same as white skin. See where I’m going here? What we should be saying is that we are color brave. That we see Black people and their beautiful black skin and value it every bit as much as our white skin. We don’t have to be “blind” to skin color to treat everyone the same. There are Black people and there are white people and a million shades in between. It’s OK to see color–it’s important to recognize our differences because differences are good–and every skin color has equal value.

We see you for who you are, and we appreciate you in all of your beautiful blackness. 

Mellody Hobson, pictured above with her husband George Lucas, takes the issue of colorblindness a step further in her TedTalk from 2014 as it relates to business and success in America. She explains racial discrimination in a way that’s easy to understand and ends with a powerful call to action for all of us. Please take the time to watch–it will be the best 14 minutes you spend today.

“Colorblindness is dangerous,” she says. “Because it means that we are ignoring the problem. We need to embrace diversity and recognize all races. But to be color brave, we need to be willing to have proactive conversations with honesty, understanding, and courage… not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the smart thing to do.”

Race Relations: The power of caring

It feels like hardly a day goes by that I don’t see something racist in the news or online, whether it’s something truly tragic like a shooting or something a little less tragic, but still terrible, such as online bullying.

This week, a white guy named Gerod Roth from Atlanta posted a selfie with a beautiful Black child on his Facebook page. Disgustingly, it was soon riddled with racist remarks from both the poster and his friends and it ended up being passed all over the internet. The Black community in Atlanta and around the country was outraged, and the people behind Black Twitter dug up the guy’s personal information and he and at least one of the commenters ended up being fired from their jobs.

Gerod Roth

I read about this in an article on the Atlanta Black Star website and, like other people who read it, was upset by the photo and comments on the guys’ Facebook page. Then I scrolled down to the comments section and read what Black people were saying–and that made me feel even worse. Things like, “White people don’t like us. Period.” Or, “White people will say this stuff about us but then smile to our faces. My buddy used to call it the fake white girl smile.” Or, even worse, “This is why we will never be safe.”

In these people’s minds, this jerk and his ignorant friends were just another terrible thing in a long line of terrible things that white people have done to people of color. This wasn’t just about one white guy and a handful of idiots–to (some of) them, this guy spoke for all white people.

And that made me so sad, because my smile is not fake and it breaks my heart that people might think that. Not that I would blame them. How can Black people trust us when things like this continue to happen? Suddenly, it seemed impossible to me that we would ever be able to move past racism when there are people like Gerod Roth out there spewing hatred into the world. Feeling helpless, I looked at my son and his beautiful brown skin and cried like a baby.

And then I left a comment saying how awful this made me feel and how sorry I was that this happened and how sorry I was for all of the terrible racist things that Black people have to face each and every day.

What happened next amazed me. I started receiving friend requests from Black people that had read my comment. Lots of them (400+ people) started leaving replies on my comment and sending me messages that said things like “Thank you for recognizing this,” and “You made my day,” and “This means so much,” and “This is sweet. It’s too bad the majority don’t feel this way.”

blackwhitemanwoman

It was nothing, really – I simply acknowledged what I was feeling; that this was terrible, that not all white people are like that, and that I felt badly about it, too. But it meant the world to a community that apparently never (or very rarely) hears these kinds of things from white people. For some, it seemed like the only time they had ever heard/read a white person express empathy to them in regards to racism. If you read the comments on that article, you’ll see what I mean. Black people are used to white people denying that racism exists–not acknowledging that it does even as we wished it didn’t. (One commenter said, “White people can see vampires, ghosts, aliens, UFOs, werewolves, and zombies, but can’t see racism, oppression or white privilege.”)

I made a lot of new friends that day, most of whom I am now communicating with through Facebook. All because instead of remaining silent and pretending that racism doesn’t exist, I expressed the feelings that I’ve been carrying around inside.

What if we all started doing this? What if we made it a point to reach out and express empathy for the struggles our Black neighbors have faced for generations? Why aren’t we doing that? What are we scared of? I know there are so many white people that feel the same why I do. If you’re reading this, surely you are one of them. I challenge you to reach out to a Black person–friend or stranger, online or in real life–and let them know how you feel and that you care about them and recognize their struggles. Speak or write from your heart.

You’ve got nothing to gain but friends.

White Privilege: Yes, you have it

 

stockphotoontopoftheworld

“I don’t have white privilege–I worked hard for everything I have.”

It’s not uncommon to hear the argument from another white person that white privilege isn’t real. Some will deny it, claiming that they grew up poor in a house with eight hungry kids and never took a hand out. Some will say that they have never gotten a leg up in the world just for being white.

But the simple truth is: yes you have. We all have. Simply having ivory skin has given us privilege beyond most of our understanding. Not realizing it is in itself part of white privilege: not having to think about it because that is just always how it has been. You and I have always been treated like we were white, because that is our reality. We have never had to think about what it would be like to be Black. We have been shielded from racial issues, and that’s why so many white people will also say that racism is no longer an issue: because we have never experienced institutional racism.

This is not to say that white people don’t face hardships, or that we haven’t earned or don’t deserve where we are today. Some of us grew up poor. A few of us were born rich. Most of us have worked our tails off to land somewhere in the middle. White privilege does not mean that everything is handed to us on a silver platter. It doesn’t mean that you or I have had it easy and/or don’t deserve where we are today. What it does mean is that, as white people, we do not experience the racially motivated hardships that people of color do each and every day. No matter what our problems are–and they might be extensive–we have no idea what that feels like.

stockphotowhitegirlsunshine

My life can be full of challenge and turmoil, but I still enjoy the privilege that inherently comes with having white skin. We all have axes to bear, but Black people and people of color have additional burdens.

I think why most people get confused about white privilege is because they equate it with privilege in general. White privilege refers to racial privilege — basically, that white-skinned people have advantages over dark-skinned people that occur due to institutional racism. There are other kinds of privilege, and Black people can enjoy those types of privilege if they fit the bill. For example, straight Black people with good educations, great jobs, and money in the bank will benefit from heterosexual and socioeconomic privilege. stockphotoguydaisies

But no matter how high they rise, they will always be Black. Some people will automatically assume that they got where they were only because of affirmative action laws. If they decide not to shower or shave and wear a hoodie shopping on their day off, they could be followed around the store by security. If their teenage sons get stopped by police for a traffic violation and appear confrontational, there is an exorbitantly higher rate that they will killed by that police officer than if their sons were white. By now, you have heard that Black mothers and fathers have to teach their children as young as seven and eight to not affirm their rights if questioned by police and that there are numerous things their white kids can wear or say or do that they can’t. (I will have to teach my own Black son this and it breaks my heart.)

At the end of the day, arguing over whether or not white privilege exists is a waste of time that would be so much better spent trying to relate to Black people or people of color. It’s called empathy. Let’s each of us, try to imagine what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes. What would it feel like to be judged solely on the color of your skin? What if your resume was thrown away because your name was “too black?” What if your child had to grow up way too fast?

Think about other ways that you have benefitted–even subtly–by the fact that you have white skin. Turn on the TV or go to a movie–what color skin do you see reflected back at you? Which race is in all the marketing advertisements? What do these subtle messages tell you about yourself? Even small, seemingly inconsequential things like this are examples of white privilege.

White skin is held up as the ideal by our society and that leads to disadvantages for people of color. It’s as simple as that. We didn’t cause this, and we don’t knowingly contribute to it. There is no reason for white people to get offended by the term white privilege. No one wants us to apologize for simply being white, but the world will be better if we realize what it means and has meant today and throughout history. We don’t have control over the course of events that brought us to this point, but we do have control over where we go from here.

Take the time to open your eyes and you will see that white privilege is real. Do some research. A good place to start would be to read On Racism and White Privilege from the Southern Poverty Law Center, or What White Privilege Really Means from Slate, or even this blog post from Huffington Post called White Privilege Doesn’t Meant What You Think It Does

Simply recognizing that white privilege exists is an important first step in creating true racial equality. Stay tuned for a series of posts on the ways I have been observing that I benefit from white privilege in my own life.

 

White Privilege: We can live where we want

stockphotogoldenfield

A nomad. A wanderer. A traveler. Those are all words you could use to describe me. I have moved almost every year since graduating high school. I’ve called seven different cities and countless more rental houses home in the past 20 years. Each time I’ve moved, there are numerous decisions to be made: where to live, where to work, where to play being among them. In the past, I have always been free to pick and choose the best neighborhood I could afford, closest to the biggest park and the amenities that were important to me at the time.

Not once–not one time–did I have to rule out a neighborhood I desired based on the color of my skin.

With the adoption of my African American son, that has all changed. We can no longer live anywhere we want. We can no longer simply choose the best neighborhood in the best city with the best schools. We have a Black son, and we don’t want his face in the mirror to be the only other Black one he sees. We don’t want to worry about him getting arrested (or worse) simply for walking home or to the park. We want him to go to a good school, but we know that dealing with racism at the best school would be far worse for him than a poor education at a diverse school.

My husband and I used to daydream every so often about moving back to Colorado, where we lived for almost a decade. Maybe we’d live in Boulder this time, or the mountains. But that’s no longer even a remote possibility. Those places are among the whitest in the country, and our family no longer fits in there.

I read this article, Where Should My Black Son Go to School? the other day written by a Black mother who was trying to figure out where to live in Los Angeles. She chronicles her struggle to find a good neighborhood, with good schools, AND a healthy black population:

classroom

“Looking for a place with good schools, a healthy environment, and diversity has taken over your life. You can’t help but mention it in conversation at your son’s preschool. A White mom says she has never thought of diversity as being important when choosing her daughter’s school. She says it doesn’t matter. You know she is only saying this because it has never been her experience to be at risk of harm because of her race. You wonder how fast it would take her to react if no one in her child’s classroom looked like her child—if her child came home crying from being teased and insulted by teachers and peers alike from being the only one.

You realize that White moms of White children are lucky. This is the essence of White privilege. They can live anywhere and be safe. They never have to think about how these decisions will shape their sons’ educational future. And sometimes, quite literally, also his life and death.”

Before having a Black son, I never realized the extent to which race affects every decision a Black family makes. Among many other things, I can no longer freely pick anywhere to live. Every major decision we make as a family will have the question of diversity at the very heart of it.

White privilege. It’s real, and manifests itself in ways you’ve probably never even thought of.