There are many metaphors for moments of sudden clarity and awareness. When I was religious, we called them “Damascus Road “experiences. Scientists call them “Eureka” moments. Ordinary folk say “a light bulb came on.” When it comes to racism, black people talk about “being woke.” Whatever the metaphor, they describe that life altering moment when something unknown becomes known.
Last week, someone asked me, “When did you know systemic racism was real?” That was easy to answer. It wasn’t a sociology class in college. It wasn’t because of statistics about racial inequalities. It wasn’t even from talking with people of color. Like most epiphanies, it happened on a specific day at a specific moment in a specific place.
For my wife and me, it happened on a spring day in 2012 at the Carl Fisher Elementary School in Speedway, Indiana. On that day, we took our four year old black daughter to visit the school where she would be attending kindergarten. We wanted to see the building and classroom as well as meet the principal and teachers. So we’d called and requested a tour.
When we arrived, the principal ushered us in to her office and began to tell us about the school. She went into great detail about their special education programs, how they were highly rated and how they attempted to incorporate their special needs students into the general population of the school. She then took us on a tour of the building.
We made a brief stop at the kindergarten room to observe the class and its teacher. Then we made a much longer visit to the special needs classroom. The teacher greeted us warmly and engaged with our daughter. They then escorted us from the school and thanked us for coming. As we walked away, all three of us were on edge, angry and uncomfortable. Something wasn’t right.
It wasn’t until that evening – when we had time to sit and talk – that we realized what was wrong. The entire special needs class had been children of color. The principal had assumed from the moment she saw our daughter that she would be a special needs student, that she was less intelligent and capable. Realizing what had happened, my wife and I were enraged. My wife said, “She’ll go to that school over my dead body!”
It is interesting that when I tell this story to people of color, they begin shaking their head the moment I mention the principal’s accolades for the special needs program. They know what’s coming. When I tell it to white people, they often don’t make the connections until I talk about the makeup of the special needs class. They also often respond with disbelief, implying I must have misinterpreted the principal’s remarks or misunderstood her intent.
This is the problem with systemic racism in America. Unless you can directly experience its ugliness, it is far too easy to discount. Hearing is not believing. Many white people – upon hearing stories of systemic racism – assume they are an oddity rather than a common occurrence. When the stories are told by people of color, many white people assume bias on the part of storyteller rather than on society or themselves. They find such stories unbelievable.
Even seeing is not believing. When white people see videos of black men who are shot and killed by police, many do not see this as evidence of racial inequity. Many white people say, “If you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the police.” This is such a powerful argument because it is experientially true for them. If you’ve never been the target of systemic racism, it is hard to believe in it. There are more comfortable explanations for what you are seeing.
This has been my chief realization and frustration as I’ve begun talking to white people about racism and white privilege. There is no adequate replacement for experience. If you assume you’re color blind and society is generally fair, it is easy to ignore evidence to the contrary. Science even has a term for this – confirmation bias. We see and hear that which confirms what we already believe.
Every epiphany is a moment when we understand something we’ve never understood before. My visit to that school did not confirm by assumptions about our society. I went into that school assuming our educational system was color blind. Even when I left, that assumption made it difficult for me to recognize what I’d seen and heard. Only later, when I had time to reflect on what had happened, did I identify it as systemic racism.
Like all epiphanies, that day changed my understanding of the world. Like all those who’ve experienced such moments, I felt compelled to share it with others. Like all preachers and teachers, I’ve learned hearing and seeing isn’t enough. Unless you’ve had the experience yourself, you have to decide to believe in the experience of someone else. You have to trust them.
Ironically, systemic racism persists in America precisely because so many white people refuse to believe what they see and hear. Our racial prejudice makes it nearly impossible for many of us to trust the stories and experiences of people of color. We don’t believe them because believing them would mean accepting something ugly about ourselves, that white people continue to perpetuate and benefit from injustice.