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.

I Focus On The Wrong Racism

I Focus On The Wrong Racism

Note to my white self…

You focus on the wrong racism.

I know you mean well, but your outrage at every blatantly racist Facebook post, meme and news item doesn’t make much difference in the world. Nearly everyone – conservative and liberal – finds blatant acts of racism offensive.  Priding yourself on your freedom from blatant acts of racism is a little like bragging about not beating your children.  Behaving as a mature, thoughtful adult shouldn’t be considered admirable.

Sure, there has been an upsurge of more blatant acts of racism in the past months. Yes, that is unfortunate.  Of course you should condemn this trend.  Nearly everyone does.  Just don’t get distracted.   Don’t focus on what nearly everyone abhors.   Blatant racism – however ugly – isn’t being defended and institutionalized.  It isn’t what you should worry about.

Instead, challenge systemic racism. Systemic racism doesn’t call a black person names.  It politely denies them the same rights and opportunities offered to white people.  Systemic racism doesn’t make jokes about Latinos.  It requires them to carry papers proving their citizenship.  Systemic racism doesn’t paint graffiti on mosques.  It signs executive orders implying Muslims are more dangerous than other people.  Systemic racism doesn’t make bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers.  It neglects to mention them when talking about the Holocaust.

I know why you focus on blatant racism. The acts and attitudes of systemic racism are much harder to recognize.  Calling them out is more difficult.  The perpetrators can offer other reasons – bureaucracy, expediency, security and even equity – for their actions.  As a white person, it is tempting for you to accept these justifications precisely because they play to your fears and prejudices.  Indeed, it is your inability to see and acknowledge acts of systemic racism that are the truest indications of your racial bias.  You don’t see them because they don’t impact your life.

Think about this. How would you feel if you never really knew if you weren’t hired because you weren’t qualified or because you were white?  What would you say if a neighbor, employer or police officer questioned your citizenship?  How would you respond to the claim that white people have a higher tendency to be criminals, murderers or terrorists?  What would you think about a society that ignores or diminishes your past pains and struggles?  If this was your life experience, would you still be focused on what people say on Facebook?

Opposing blatant racism is like opposing child abuse. Of course you should!  However, the question is how you will oppose it.  Are you willing to challenge its underpinnings?  Do you oppose the use of corporal punishment in homes and school?  Do you support giving more financial resources to poor families with children?  Do you understand child abuse as including emotional and mental abuse?  Do you see the cure to child abuse as parental incarceration or parental education and training?  Calling out the physical abuse of a child in a public setting doesn’t make you a child advocate.  It makes you a law abiding citizen.

The same is true for racism. There should be no accolades for treating people of color with respect and dignity.  If you think this makes you a good person, you have set the bar far too low.  The true indication of your maturity and thoughtfulness is what you are doing to increase equity and opportunity for people of color.

You need to set the bar higher.

Look at your life. Find at least one instance in your life where you are benefiting from systemic racism.  If you can’t find something quickly, you need to spend some time learning about systemic racism.  Here are eight short videos with examples of systemic racism.  When you do recognize something, think about how you might personally alter or challenge that systemic racism.  Are there ways you can disconnect from directly benefitting from this injustice?  Pick one small cause and try to make a difference. Pledge to spend as much time fighting systemic racism as you do posting about blatant racism on Facebook.

If every white person in America took that pledge, the foundations of systemic racism would begin to crumble.

(Quick Note: I will be on vacation for ten days.  I will return to blogging during the first week of April.)

I Need People of Color

I Need People of Color

Note to my white self…

You need people of color.

Admit it. You are more relaxed in situations where you are among other white people.  Having grown up in white America, you are uncomfortable in places, gatherings or meetings where there is a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  It is especially unsettling when you are the minority.  You are not as certain of how to act and what to say.  You can’t trust your assumptions. You have to listen more carefully.  You’re surprised more often.  You are aware of your otherness. Being in a diverse setting can be exhausting.

Think about that. What you experience occasionally is what people of color experience continually.  They have no choice.  They too live in white America and are required to engage white people in a myriad of ways.  In addition, while you may be uncomfortable around people of color, you are seldom the target of hostility.  They, on the other hand, must be on constant guard.  One of the more insidious aspects of white privilege is that you can easily escape the discomfort of diverse situations.  They cannot.

Admit it. It is often easier for you to talk about racial justice and equality than to actually engage with people of color.  Fighting for racial justice and equality – though admirable – does not require you to address your unease in being with people of color.  Indeed, it is completely possible to love justice and equality and have little affection or respect for people of color.  In so doing, you recognize their rights without appreciating their attributes.

Be careful. This kind of thinking allows you to continue to see white as normative and preferable.  You only see that which people of color lack.  You only see the inequities and injustices they face.  You only see their weaknesses.  They are people in need of what you have.  They are recipients of your generosity.  When you think this way, the only difference between you and the white supremacist is one of attitude.  You both agree about the neediness of people of color.  You’re simply more benevolent.

I know this is painful to hear, but as long as you only see the deficiencies of people of color, you will never appreciate all they have to offer. The marginalization of people of color is not simply about their losses.  It is also about your personal loss.  It is about the diminishment of your life.  They – by virtue of their different cultural history and life experience – have assets to offer.  They see and know the world in ways that you cannot. You need them.

Everyone needs them. Studies have shown that homogenous groups are less creative, insightful and open minded.  A diverse group of people outperforms a uniform group of people in most tasks.  Indeed, it could be argued the very genius of the American experiment has been our unique willingness to welcome and accept people from a great number of cultures and experiences.  This has given our society an advantage over societies of similarly colored people.

This explains why you often feel anxious and unsettled when in the presence of people of color. You are experiencing the energy produced by a diverse group.  That you are not certain how to act and what to say is a good thing.  That you can’t trust your assumptions forces you to listen more carefully.  That you’re surprised more often means you’re experiencing new ideas. By engaging with people of color, your mind and heart are expanded in ways impossible when you are with people who look and think more like you.  Being in a diverse setting can be energizing.

I am glad you are seeking ways to be an ally with people of color, but don’t objectify them as people who need you.  They are also people you need.  Start putting yourself in more situations where you are uncomfortable, where you are the minority.  Understand these moments as opportunities to grow.  Approach people of color as potential friends and collaborators and not as evidence of your benevolence.

This is vital if you really hope to end systemic racism. It is not enough to change laws or reform institutions.  At its core, systemic racism is an attitude.  It allows one group – white people – to benefit from the subjection of another group – people of color.  Unfortunately, until white people see the costs of systemic racism, it will be difficult for them to abandon its perceived benefits.

This was at the core of this past election. Donald Trump convinced many white people that people of color were costing them important benefits, that American society was a zero sum endeavor where there are only winners if there are also losers.  As with much of his rhetoric, this was a lie.  The truth is more hopeful.  When we respect and value all people, everyone benefits.

We need each other.

White People Are Not Stupid

White People Are Not Stupid

Note to my white self…

White people are not stupid.

I know you’ve been frustrated lately. You’ve encountered white people who can’t seem to understand the difference between racial prejudice and racism.  You’ve had several white people call you racist for challenging their racism, as if that were possible.  You spent a whole day going back and forth with a white woman who insisted she had been the victim of racism from people of color.  Don’t be confused.  These people are not stupid.

Stupidity is a lack of intelligence.  Systemic racism is not the product of stupid people. The white businessmen who created slavery in America were brilliant. The white politicians who justified slavery did so intentionally.  Voter suppression, redlining, segregation, the war on drugs and anti-immigrant policies are all creations of intelligent white people.  Most white people are not stupid.  They are ignorant.

Ignorance is the decision to ignore certain facts and realities. Slave traders and slave owners had to ignore the humanity of people of color in order to justify slavery.  White politicians had to ignore injustices and inequities in order to justify inhumane laws.  Those who argue with you about systemic racism will not be swayed by your facts, statistics and studies.  It is not that they are too stupid to understand them.  They have intentionally chosen to ignore them.

For someone who explains systemic racism to others, you still don’t seem to fully appreciate its origins. Systemic racism is a cleverly constructed system to perpetuate and justify the mistreatment and abuse of people of color.  It took hundreds of years to create. The arguments and rationalizations you’re encountering are not the utterances of stupid people.  They are the carefully crafted, time tested and well-honed defenses of racism.

This is so important for you to understand. You have been under the false impression that you can quickly and easily persuade ignorant white people of the reality of systemic racism and white privilege. They aren’t stupid.  They know what you’re trying to do.  They aren’t impressed by your arguments.  They could care less about your facts.  It is these arguments and facts they have chosen to ignore.

I know you don’t want to accept this, but education alone will not end systemic racism. If the defenders of systemic racism were stupid, it would have collapsed long ago.  Thinking of and labeling racist white people as unintelligent is a big mistake.  In so doing, you seriously underestimate their capability to sustain the system.  When they confuse the meaning of racism, they aren’t being stupid.  They are being ingenious.

So you need to stop arguing with them. You know within a few minutes whether someone is stupid, ignorant or uninformed.  If they are stupid, they can’t understand the complexities of systemic racism.  If they are ignorant, they have decided to ignore them.  The only conversations worth having are with those who express a lack of understanding and a real curiosity about racism.  Since you were once such a person, be patient with those people.

The stupid and the ignorant require a different approach. As with any societal behavior, systemic racism will only end when the costs outweigh the benefits.  One of those costs must be shame.  The decrease in smoking in America involved changing laws and educating people about its dangers, but its decline was primarily driven by a shift in public opinion.  When smoking began to be seen as a nasty habit, people began to abandon it.

This is equally true in confronting systemic racism. The facts about systemic racism are no more disputable than those around the ills of smoking. The problem is not with the facts, but with the unwillingness of many white people to abandon this nasty habit.  Until white people become ashamed of systemic racism, societal change will not come.

So stop debating the reality of racism with the ignorant.

Instead, challenge the cruelty behind their rhetoric. When white people justify police brutality, ask how they can be so heartless when fathers and sons are murdered.  When they support anti-immigrant or refugee laws, ask how they can be so cruel when families are torn apart or left in squalor.  When they defend laws and policies that discriminate, ask how they can be so unfair. When they express racist sentiments, ask how they can be so ugly.

When systemic racism is seen as heartless, cruel, unfair and ugly by our society, most white people will abandon its defense.

After all, they aren’t stupid.

I Need To Stop Feeling Guilty About My White Privilege

I Need To Stop Feeling Guilty About My White Privilege

Note to my white self…

You need to stop feeling guilty about your white privilege.

I know you sometimes feel guilty, especially when confronted with all the past and present racial injustices in America. Appalled by what has been done to people of color by white people, you are embarrassed and ashamed.  While I’m glad you take inequity seriously, guilt is largely irrelevant to any thoughtful discussion about systemic racism.

When people challenge your white privilege or point out your racism, they are not trying to make you feel guilty. They are trying to make you aware.  They aren’t blaming you for all the ugliness of the past.  They are pointing out how you continue to benefit from the maltreatment and marginalization of people of color.  In a discussion about race, the proper response of a white person to historic and systemic racism is not defensiveness or guilt.  Neither contributes positively to the conversation.  When challenged about your participation in white privilege and its societal benefits, it is far more helpful to take responsibility.

Consider this analogy. Imagine an art historian visiting your home and pointing out that the painting on your wall, which had been passed down in your family for generations, had actually been stolen from a museum a couple of hundred years ago.  How would you respond?  Would you become angry, belittling the expert and justifying your possession of the painting?  Would you become despondent, taking the blame for your possession of it?  I hope not.

You didn’t steal the painting. You don’t have to defend your possession of it or feel guilty about your ancestor’s thievery.  I suppose a little embarrassment might be understandable, but what matters most is what you do with your new knowledge.  Once you know the painting is stolen, you become morally responsible.  You need to make things right, to restore the painting to its rightful owners.

This is the appropriate response when someone challenges your white privilege and racism. Neither getting defensive nor taking the blame is helpful.  People of color want you to acknowledge the past injustices and the present inequities and – this is essential – to do whatever is in your power to make things right.  To do otherwise would be like keeping the painting on your wall.  And you know that wouldn’t be right.

So don’t feel guilty about your white privilege and its benefits. They were part of your inheritance, something you didn’t choose.  Your parents didn’t tell you the origins of that inheritance.  Until recently, you didn’t fully understand the advantages of those privileges.  Now you do.   And I think you’ll do the right thing.  I think you’ll take that painting down and return it to the museum.  You’re going to start looking for ways to restore what was stolen from people of color.

That won’t be easy. The benefits of your white privilege – unlike a painting – are embedded in nearly everything about you – your bank account, your home, your job and your lifestyle.  Nearly every business and institution in society has benefitted in some way from racism.  Trying to sort out how to compensate people of color for past wrongs and present injustices is complicated.  As much as you might like to, you can’t divest yourself of your privilege.

But you can take responsibility for it. You can avoid taking advantage of your privilege.  You can use your privilege to ally with people of color.  You can challenge the status quo and its insistence that “the past is in the past.”  You can support efforts to end systemic racism and provide people of color with new opportunities. Finally, you can challenge other white people when they try to justify keeping the painting on the wall.

When you do so, explain that you are not trying to make them feel guilty.

You just want them to be responsible.