Paying My Reparations

Paying My Reparations

Note to my white self…

I’m really glad you understand the depth of the injustice inflicted on people of color in the United States. You’ve done your homework.  You’ve educated yourself about the genocide of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the reign of the KKK, the exploitation of Chinese workers in mines and on the railroad, the institution of Jim Crow Laws, the exclusion of people of color from the New Deal, the internment of the Japanese, the oppression of migrant workers and the continued mass incarceration of people of color.  You’ve expanded your understanding of history beyond the whitewashed version you were taught in school.

I’m glad you’ve become a proponent of reparations, of systemic compensation for systemic oppression. This isn’t a popular position in a white culture enamored by the myth of a level playing field.  You can expect to be mocked and vilified for suggesting white people have a responsibility for the racist acts of their ancestors, for pointing out the presence of systemic racism today and for acknowledging the need to balance the scales.  Stand firm.  Your verbal support for reparations helps deconstruct justifications for past and present injustice.

But verbal support isn’t enough.

You’re not naïve. You know, in this present political climate, the odds of reparations becoming a reality are slim to none.  You know that for the past twenty-five years, US Representative John Conyers has introduced the HR 40 bill, calling for a study of the impact of slavery and appropriate remedies, and has watched both Republican and Democrat Congresses ignore that bill.  You know rhetoric is unlikely to make reparations a reality.

So don’t be guilty of what conservatives claim. Don’t let your support for reparations be an act of virtue signaling.  It is far too easy to support reparations when they are unlikely to ever occur.  You can claim nobility without any personal cost.  If you really support reparations, you don’t have to wait on other whites to agree.  You don’t have to wait on a Congressional study committee.  You don’t have to wait on legislation remedying past injustices.  If you truly believe in reparations, you can begin paying them today.

Here are a few simple suggestions…

  1. Make a significant monthly donation to organizations that work with or for people of color. Treat that donation as a monthly debt obligation and not as an act of charity. Give enough to notice the difference in your bank account.
  2. Seek out businesses and professional services owned by people of color even if they aren’t the lowest bidder. Invest in the entrepreneurial endeavors of people of color, knowing that traditional sources of capital are often denied to them.
  3. Offer your products and services to people of color at a discounted price. Eliminate any economic behavior that exploits people of color. Make certain domestic workers, roofers, and landscapers aren’t being exploited for your benefit.
  4. Tip people of color twice the norm when they serve you.
  5. Assist a person of color in attending college or vocational school.
  6. Attend events and performances created and sponsored by people of color. If you are never the minority at an event, make that happen.
  7. Financially support people of color who are seeking political office.
  8. Consider including people of color and their causes in your will, thereby redistributing your accumulated wealth.

Since you are in favor of reparations, begin today.  Until you begin doing these things, your economic footprint is exactly the same as that of a white supremacist.  You both benefit equally in the advantages of white privilege. Neither of you are paying your debts.

Be the change you want to see. If thousands of white people like you began to pay reparations, the economic scales in America might begin to subtly shift.  In that process, more people of color will be empowered and political momentum could change.  Perhaps, if enough people commit to personal reparations, “justice will finally roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

(This post is the third in a three part series on reparations.  The first post in the series was “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question” and the second post was “A Reasonable Reparation.”

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Reminders For Recovering Racists

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Note to my white self…

Congratulations! You have committed to being an ally to people of color in their struggle to end systemic racism in America.  You are sharing anti-racist memes, donating to anti-racist causes and even attending anti-racist protests.  Good for you.  However, don’t forget your most helpful contribution in this struggle.  First and foremost, address the unconscious racial bias within yourself.  Here are six daily reminders as you navigate life as a white person…

It is impossible to be aware of your unconscious racial bias.  If you were aware of them, they wouldn’t be unconscious.  This means, as a white person, you should never say, “I was not being racist.”  This implies you are aware of your every motive.  This is very unlikely.  When your motives are challenged, it is better to respond, “I was not consciously or intentionally being racist.  Thanks for making me aware.”   This is more honest and reflective.  It also implies a genuine interest in becoming aware of your unconscious racial bias.

When someone of color points out a racial bias, they are most likely correct. When interacting with people of color, they are much more likely to be aware of your bias – one they have consciously experienced countless times – than you are.  Could they be wrong?  Certainly.  However, it is more likely you were unaware of your bias.  Immediately responding “I was not being racist,” without carefully reflecting on their perception, may actually suggest another unconscious racial bias – people of color should not correct white people.

Being unconscious of a racial bias is not an excuse. An unconscious bias is not less problematic than a conscious bias.  It is just the opposite. An unconscious bias is much more dangerous.  You can address a conscious bias, but an unconscious racial bias can repeatedly do damage.  When someone makes you aware of a racial bias, don’t say, “I didn’t mean to be racist” as if this excuses your behavior.  If you were unconsciously standing on someone’s toes, you were still causing them pain.  The proper response, when a racial bias is exposed, is always an apology.

For every racial bias of which you are aware, you can assume there are several of which you are not. The racial bias of which you aware is usually the tip of an iceberg.  Therefore, when you become conscious of a racial bias, it is always worthwhile to dig a little deeper in your own psyche.  For this reason, having an unconscious bias challenged need not be understood as an attack on your character.  You are being offered an opportunity to better understand yourself.  Exposing one racial bias may allow you to become conscious of others.

In any interaction with a person of color or discussion about racism, it is best to assume you will be bringing some unconscious racial bias into the interaction or discussion. Assuming your interactions or discussions will be free of racial bias is arrogant. Accepting the likelihood that you will be acting out of your racial biases allows you to be receptive, rather than defensive, if someone challenges your attitudes or actions.  Remember, the person of color – based on many encounters with white people – already assumes you have conscious or unconscious racial bias.  They don’t expect you to be unbiased.  They expect you to respond to any challenge with defensiveness.  Surprise them.

Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias does not eliminate it. A bias took many years to develop.  If it is an unconscious bias, it became so normative that you could not see it.  Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias is merely the beginning of the process of becoming less racist.  Initially, you will continue to act out of that bias.  All that has changed is your awareness.  Only with time can you diminish the power of a bias to influence your behavior.  Expect to have your bias pointed out to you repeatedly. When challenged, respond, “Thanks.  I needed that reminder.” With each reminder, you will become less likely to act out of that racial bias.

In the battle against systemic racism, always remember  – as a white person – you are part of the problem as well as the solution. Purging the unconscious racial bias within yourself is the first and greatest contribution you can make.

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Note to my white self…

Claiming “everyone is racist” is racist.

I know other white people are telling you that anyone – regardless of their color or ethnicity – can be racist. They’re quoting the definition of racism from the dictionary – “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  They’re arguing people of color can be biased or antagonistic toward white people, that everyone is equally capable of being racist.  They tell stories of when they’ve been personally attacked or mistreated by someone of color.  Or they point out situations in the world where people of color have marginalized another group.

Don’t be confused.

In most cases, these arguments are attempts to normalize racism and not to end it. Indeed, once they’ve convinced you that everyone is racist, racism is no longer a problem requiring societal change.  It becomes a personal issue.  After all, if everyone is racist, white people have no greater responsibility for addressing and combatting it than others.  Ironically, while these people are fighting for an equal application of the definition of racism, they are far less concerned about actual social inequities, such as the power to define language.

When we who are white insist on a definition of racism which includes everyone, we are arguing that we – and not people of color – get to define the term. When we quote from Merriam-Webster, we seldom acknowledge George Merriam, Charles Merriam and Noah Webster were all white men, or that the academic and publishing worlds continue to be dominated by white people.  This assumption that our definition of racism trumps alternative definitions, especially those of people of color, exposes a dynamic white people seldom want to discuss – the differences in political and economic power in America.

Systemic racism is so insidious because it permeates every societal institution, including the publishers of dictionaries. Thankfully, in recent years, alternate definitions of racism have gained credibility.  Most sociologists define racism within a societal structure where there are significant differences in power.  They understand what most people of color know intuitively – without power – prejudice, discrimination and antagonism toward someone of another race is powerless.  It can do little systemic damage. In America, while anyone can be biased and prejudiced, it is only white people who have the power to be racist.

Think about this. Obviously, black people were antagonistic toward their white oppressors during the era of slavery.  Was this antagonism racist?  When they ran away, or killed their owners, or led rebellions, should these actions be seen as reverse racism?  Of course not.  Most people would acknowledge that their actions were a legitimate response to their mistreatment.  Yet, today, if a person of color expresses anger or resentment about their mistreatment, many white people want to define their behavior as racist.  Don’t be confused.  Resisting oppression is not racism.

When you confront other white people with this reality, don’t be surprised when they call you racist. When white people call other white people racist for challenging racist attitudes or behavior, they demonstrate how little they really care about Merriam-Webster’s definition.  By that definition, it is impossible for you – another white person – to be racist toward them.  What they are upset about is your lack of loyalty.

Merriam and Webster did get one part of their definition correct. Racism has always included a deep seated conviction that one’s own race is superior.  This loyalty to your race is vital to sustaining injustice.  It is difficult to justify inequality if we acknowledge the worth of another group of people.  Racism thrives on an underlying assertion of superiority.  This makes the claim that everyone is racist, when mouthed by white people, even more ugly.  If we who are white want to emphasize our common humanity with people of color, offering them equality in the propensity toward racism seems a ridiculous place to start.

Theoretically, is it possible for any group of people to be racist?  Of course.  If Africans had preceded Europeans in the Industrial Revolution, colonized North America, brought over Europeans as slaves, oppressed white people for generations and resisted every attempt to create a just and equitable society, it would be possible to legitimately accuse people of color of racism.  However, short of that, claiming everyone is racist…is racist.  We live in a country where racism is a white affliction that can only be cured when we who are white acknowledge this ugly disease and seek treatment.

Here is my challenge to you.

Work for a society where people of color have enough power that they can be rightfully accused of racism.  Create a society where power is distributed so evenly that blame and responsibility for injustice can be equally shared.  This will not happen by accusing everyone of racism.  It will only happen when white people surrender the power of defining and dominating the conversation.

Habitually Racist

Habitually Racist

Note to my white self…

You are not a white supremacist. You don’t hate people of color.  You don’t consciously think of them as inferior.  You never use derogatory language to describe them. You believe people of color deserving of the same civil rights and legal protections as you have.  Unfortunately, none of these behaviors or attitudes are admirable.

While I’m glad you think such things, these convictions are hardly noble. It is a little like bragging that, when it comes to your children, you “put food on the table and a roof over their head.”  Of course you do.  You and every other decent parent.   Likewise, not being a white supremacist isn’t an achievement.  It is a reasonable expectation.  Not belonging to the KKK doesn’t mean you are not racist; it means you are not morally deficient.

For you and many others, your racism is far more subtle. It is not an intentional commitment to see people of color harmed or diminished.  Your racism is more like a bad habit, gradually developed from observing your grandparents, parents and peers in a racially prejudiced culture.  You had these habits reinforced by the media, in school and even by your religion.  In such a culture, it would be nearly impossible for you to not be racist.

I know it is difficult for you to see this. Your racism is a habitual behavior.  These behaviors – like all such habits – seem ordinary, innocent and normal.  Identifying the race of someone of color in describing them.  Assuming drug dealers are people of color.  Using phrases with racially derogatory histories.  Checking your car locks when a black male appears.  Fearing people of color who haven’t straightened their hair.  These are bad habits shared by many white people.  They are habits that often take an outside observer to point out.

Unfortunately, when someone points out a racist behavior, you tend to hear this as a moral indictment. You hear an accusation of some heinous crime.  Often, your conversation partner simply wants you to be aware of a bad habit.  They are not claiming that you belong to the KKK.  They are reminding you that you’re a white person raised in a racially biased culture with a long history of racial injustice.  They are not accusing you of being evil, but of being oblivious.

Understanding your racism as a bad habit should lessen your defensiveness. Your racism is not a character flaw.  You can continue to see yourself as a good person.  Indeed, you are such a good person that you appreciate when someone points out a bad habit that you need to correct.  The proper response is, “Thank you.  I wasn’t aware of how off putting and offensive that behavior or attitude could be. I will try to act and think differently.”

Understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests a course of action. You know how to eliminate a bad habit.  You’ve addressed them before.  Awareness is the first step, but you must actively work to change your patterns.  This involves quickly altering your behavior when you catch yourself in an old habit.  Initially, you’ll catch yourself often, but each incident will reinforce your awareness of your negative behavior and increase your desire to change.  Every time you hit your car locks, you’ll be aware of your behavior’s racist overtones.  Instead of that behavior reinforcing your prejudice, it will make you aware of it. With vigilance, eventually you will find yourself developing more positive behaviors and attitudes.  When it comes to racism, you can become less and less racist if you are committed to eliminating racist habits.

Finally, understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests racism can be greatly diminished in our society. You know of negative behaviors and attitudes – smoking, sexual harassment, gender inequality, homophobia, domestic violence, etc. – that were once either ignored or silently condoned within our culture.  While none of these societal habits have been completely eliminated, we’ve made progress.  This progress has largely been the result of more and more people understanding such behavior as negative and unacceptable.  Many people have rejected the behaviors and attitudes they learned from their grandparents, parents and peers and acted differently.  This is equally possible in the case of racism…if you acknowledge you have a problem.

So start acknowledging your racism today. Your subtle racism may not be immediately obvious to you, but it will be if you are willing to accept outside critique.  If you are open to this critique, people who are more aware of racial bias can point out your bad habits.   When they do so, hear it for what it is – an opportunity to become a better person, to be a little less racist, and to help create a more wonderful world.

The Benefit of the Doubt

The Benefit of the Doubt

Note to my white self…

You did it again.

You gave the benefit of the doubt to the white person.

This is what happened. A black woman described a situation where she felt racially profiled and mistreated and, instead of acknowledging her pain and the injustice of the situation, you thought to yourself, “I wonder if the words and actions of that white person were really racist.  Maybe this person of color misunderstood the situation and the intent of that white person.”

At least you didn’t openly question the veracity of her description. I suppose that’s progress.  There was a time when you would have argued with a person of color about whether a situation which they experienced was really racist.  You would have acted like you, a person who has never been the victim of racism, were the expert and they, someone who had been the target of racism often, were the novice.  Ironically, you would have been oblivious to how your willingness to give the white person the benefit of the doubt is a clear manifestation of our prejudice and privilege.

I am glad you want to see racism ended. I appreciate your desire to work for that outcome.  But that day is not today.  And pretending that the behavior of yourself and other white people doesn’t have a racial dimension doesn’t make that day come any quicker.  Indeed, that kind of thinking postpones that day.

Today, this is the reality. Based on our track record as a white dominated nation, there are probably a 100 interactions with some racial bias or prejudice in our society for every incident where a person of color misconstrues the situation.  Are there situations where they get it wrong?  Probably, but that isn’t the behavior that deserves your scrutiny.  The more troubling question is why anyone – based on those odds – would give the white person the benefit of the doubt.

I think you know the answer to that question. You give the white person the benefit of the doubt because in exonerating them, you also free yourself of responsibility.  Though you might defend your unwillingness to condemn the behavior of another white person as withholding judgment, in actuality you have already judged the person of color.  They are deluded at best and a liar at worst.  What they claim to have experienced isn’t real.

The black comedian W. Kamau Bell points out the absurdity of this common white behavior in his comedy show. He suggests questioning the racist experiences of people of color is as crazy as a black person challenging a white person’s claim they had pizza for lunch.

“How do you know it was pizza?”

“What are you talking about?  Of course, it was pizza.  I have pizza almost every day.”

“That’s what I think is suspicious. Why are you having pizza every day?”

“Because there is pizza everywhere in the world.”

“No, I don’t see all this pizza you’re seeing. I don’t think you had pizza.  Are you sure it wasn’t pita bread with cheese on it?”

“No, it was pizza!  I’ve eaten a lot of pizza in my life.  My parents ate pizza.  My grandparents ate pizza.  My great grandparents were brought to this country to make pizza.”

I think you get his point.

However, as disturbing as this behavior can be, it is your willingness to give the white people the benefit of the doubt that is most concerning. When a person of color acts violently, they are a thug.  When a white person is violent, they are mentally and emotionally disturbed.  When a person of color possesses drugs, they are a drug dealer.  When a white person has drugs, they are in need of treatment.  When a person of color is arrested, they probably did something criminal.  When a white person is charged, they are innocent until proven guilty.

Our society seldom gives the person of color the benefit of the doubt. Our police officers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they drive on our streets.  Our judges don’t give them the benefit of the doubt if they end up in our courts.  Our employers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they apply for a job.  Our store guards don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they shop.  I could go on and on.  When you don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they report acts of racism, you are just as racist as the police officers, judges, employers and guards you find objectionable.

So start giving people of color the benefit of the doubt.

When your knee jerk response is to doubt their experience and defend the behavior of the white person, recognize that for what it is – evidence of your deeply embedded racism. Admit it.  You cannot control it.  You can only acknowledge and apologize for it.

Only then, can you hope to listen and learn from the experiences of people of color.

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

Note to my white self…

When other white people say “all lives matter,” don’t be confused. You’ve written about white code.  You’ve talked about those terms white people use to voice racist sentiments without sounding racist.   “All lives matter” – when voiced in response to “black lives matter” – is white code.  It is not a defense of human rights.

Certainly, all lives should matter. The lives of every person, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their ethnicity, their religious faith or their sexual orientation, should matter equally. This is a noble and principled assertion, especially in a world where religious, political and economic forces don’t always affirm the universal worth of every individual.  If you’re discussing and defending human rights, stating that all lives matter is a good starting point.

Unfortunately, when the starting point is someone else saying “black lives matter,” saying “all lives matter” does not come off as noble and principled. You sound racist.  Your defense of all lives suggests a lack of sensitivity and understanding, some unacknowledged racism or perhaps both.  In responding with “all lives matter,” you imply the person saying “black lives matter” is really saying “black lives matter more” and this is simply ridiculous.

“Black lives matter” developed as a response to the lack of concern on the part of police departments, the media and the political system to situations where black people have been the victims of police brutality and even murder. It was never the assertion that “black lives matter more” than other lives. It was a desperate cry of those who were experiencing a world where “black lives matter less.”  “Black lives matter” is another way of saying “All lives don’t seem to matter equally.”

When you respond with “all lives matter,” it suggests a disconnect on your part. Maybe you don’t want to admit you live in a world where such horrible inequities exist.  Maybe you’re afraid the only way black lives can matter more is if white lives matter a little less.  Maybe you see the world as place where all lives matter at birth, but are thereafter judged worthy by other standards.  Maybe when you say “all lives matter” you mean all lives matter, but some lives matter more.  Maybe you think black people are making that claim because you look at the world that way.

Let’s be clear. If you really believe all lives matter, the proper response to “black lives matter” is simply one word – “Yes.”  Anything else is suspect.

And don’t get me started about “blue lives matter.” If claiming “all lives matter” is insensitive, then claiming “blue lives matter” is downright ugly.  It implies that when a black person and a police officer encounter one another, the life of the police officer matters more than that of the black person.  This is what people of color hear when you defend the actions of the police and disparage the character of the victim.  They know that after nearly every shooting, the white media, politicians and police departments spend tremendous energy is portraying the black person as criminal or questionable, as a life with less worth.

Sadly, people of color agree that blue lives matter more than black lives. It is their experience.  It is precisely why they’ve been arguing “black lives matter.” Indeed, they know official police policy and judicial pronouncements have consistently defended the right of a police officer to kill a black person when they feel threatened.  Notice that they have the right to do so when they ”feel” threatened.  Whether they were actually threatened is almost irrelevant.  Protecting blue lives matters more than protecting black ones.

So stop saying “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter.” It’s insensitive, ugly and racist.  It is not how mature people respond to expressions of pain and tragedy.

Imagine you discover you have lung cancer. You share this terrible news with your friends and family.  They respond by reminding you that “all cancers matter.”  What would you think?  How would you feel if they responded by listing all of your behaviors in the past that might have contributed to your cancer?  What if they suggested you didn’t deserve to be treated fairly by the medical system?  How angry would that make you?

If you share the news of your cancer with someone, you only want one thing – their understanding and support. If someone says “black lives matter, they are asking for the same understanding and support.  In a world where not all lives matter equally, that seems a reasonable request.

White Privilege and the Redwoods

White Privilege and the Redwoods

Note to my white self…

You are privileged.

I know you realize this, but you need to be reminded.  One of the problems with privilege is that it so easily becomes normative.  You begin to assume your reality is everyone’s reality.  You make the Marie Antoinette mistake and assume everyone eats cake.  You saw this absurdity in the failed Republican replacement to Obamacare.  Part of the reason it failed is because white privileged men thought providing people – who barely make it from paycheck to paycheck – with a Health Savings Account was a solution.   “Let them save money” is only slightly more absurd than “let them eat cake.”

Another reason the Republican plan failed is because a small group of conservative white male Republicans actually think they deserve their privilege, that they are more intelligent, more hard working and more worthy. They don’t think healthcare is a human right, but a reward.  They ask taxpayers to provide them and their families with some of the best healthcare in the world because they deserve it and others don’t.  This is another of the problems with privilege, it is so easy to justify.  To the winners go the spoils.

I know it is tempting, but don’t focus on them. They are only the most obvious example of your own privilege.  Indeed, focusing on them allows you to ignore your own privilege.  It distracts you.  Another of the problems with privilege is that you can easily identify someone more privileged than yourself.  In so doing, you can pretend to be less privileged, even oppressed.  You know white American males – the most privileged class in the history of the world – who think this way.  So instead of focusing on the ugliness of white politicians and their privilege, examine yourself.

For example, last week you took your family on a vacation to the Redwoods of Northern California. You spent four days exploring the national and state parks created and paid for by your fellow citizens to preserve these places of beauty for all people.  Except they don’t.  How many people of color did you see during your hikes in the woods?  Zero.  Admit it.  The National Park system was largely designed by and for white privileged people.  Like those politicians’ healthcare, it is a privilege you are perfectly willing to allow people of color to pay for with their taxes.

I don’t remind you of this to lessen the value of your vacation. I think every person – regardless of color – should see the Redwoods.  I remind you of this because I don’t want you to make the mistakes you so easily see in white male politicians.  People vacationing in the Redwoods is not normative.  It is a privilege.

You can justify it by telling yourself that everyone has access to the national parks, but those politicians argued everyone has access to healthcare. The problem isn’t access, but affordability.  Many people of color don’t have the resources to take your vacation.  Indeed, many of them work jobs without paid vacation.  So you can celebrate and support the preservation of natural beauty, but don’t forget that the enjoyment of these places of grandeur is largely reserved for the privileged.  You should have suspected this when you visited the most famous grove of redwoods in California and saw that it was named the Rockefeller Grove.

So what do you do about this? Guilt isn’t helpful.  Awareness is a beginning.  Changing your thinking is important.  If you think healthcare is the right of every person, can you really limit your experience in those Redwoods to a privileged few?  Why do we give retired people of means free access to our national park system, but charge young families entrance fees?  Why do we not have inexpensive transportation systems from our urban centers to nearby natural beauty?  If we believe experiencing these places of beauty inspires and ennobles, why don’t we give easy access to those who need inspiration the most?

Think about this. If your vacation to the Redwoods was an act of privilege, where else are you benefitting in ways you don’t see?  What else do you assume is normative?  What else do you justify?  This is the problem with privilege.  It is problematic until you acknowledge that most of what you desire, value and need is what every other human desires, values and needs.  If you want affordable healthcare, paid vacation, quality housing, and excellent schools, you should also want this for others.  What you treasure should be available to all.  Even a walk in the Redwoods.