Note to my white self…

You don’t understand racism.

I know you’re trying and that’s admirable. Empathy is a noble attribute.  When thousands of people in a society want to understand something, change happens.  You saw this dynamic when mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters wanted to understand the lives of their gay and lesbian children or siblings.  This societal empathy brought about the rapid acceptance of same sex marriage and the normalization of homosexuality.  That’s all good.

Unfortunately, when it comes to racism, empathy and change are more difficult. Too few white people have spouses, children, or siblings who are people of color.  Most don’t even have people of color as friends.  If they did, racism might be less of a problem in America.  It’s hard to hate the people you love.   Racism would become personal rather than an abstraction.  That’s what happened to you.  Think about how having a black daughter has changed your perspective.

Through Ella, you’ve experienced racism vicariously. She has been your window into the realities of racism.  But don’t confuse vicarious experience for real experience.  Remember, that your window is the window of a moving train – one moment you see the racism and next it’s gone.  You have not been nor will you ever be the target of racism. When your daughter is under attack, you will experience pain, but you will not experience racism.  Whatever pain you experience is merely collateral damage.

I’m glad you are the father of a black daughter. It has and will change your view of yourself, of society, of people of color and of the world.  Those are all good things.  Just don’t pretend you really understand racism.

Here is the truth for you as a white person. You can define racism.  You can read about it.  You can study it.  You can identify some racist behaviors and statements, especially when you see them in someone else.  You can talk about racism and your opposition to it.  Those are all fine things. They are also thoughts and ideas in your head.  Empathy, as wonderful as it is, is still an exercise in imagination.  Imagining what it would be like to be a person of color is possible. Fully understanding that experience is probably not.

But I’m glad you keep trying.

Remember those times when you were the object of prejudice and hatred. Remember that experience of being oppressed and marginalized, of being treated unfairly or patronized.  Remember how horrible that felt, how angry it made you.  Now imagine that you live in a culture where that prejudice, hatred and injustice permeates every institution and situation that you’re in, that you can never completely escape its oppressive power, that it taints everything you experience, and that you can never be certain if what you’re experiencing is influenced by someone else’s racism.

Try to imagine that.

That’s a worthwhile exercise. If enough of us did it, maybe more of us would say, “Enough!”  Maybe more of us would find racism intolerable.  Maybe our society would change.

So keep trying to understand racism, but remember that understanding racism isn’t the ultimate goal.  It’s simply a means to an end.

The end of racism.


3 thoughts on “I Don’t Understand Racism

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