Dear Black America,
After reading this open letter to white people published at Salon and authored by middle school teacher Julia Blount, I feel compelled to offer an alternative perspective from a similar background. Like Blount, I too was born of mixed heritage. My father is black. My mother is white. Like Blount, I too have grown up in relative safety and affluence, but have nonetheless experienced disparities in treatment on account of my brown skin.
As I read Blount’s admonition to white America, I largely understand the motive behind it. That said, if we really want white people to understand and respond to the points Blount and others have made, we need to rethink how we pursue change.
First, let’s consider this notion of “white privilege.” What do we really mean by that? One offered definition is “the benefits that white people get from society that people of color don’t.” What are some examples of these benefits? The above clip provides a few, most of which can be summed up as not being judged negatively on account of skin color.
If our goal as people of color is to pursue a society wherein skin color elicits no judgment, our first task must be not judging other people on account of their skin color. Right? We can’t be hypocrites. We can’t on the one hand bemoan the prejudicial judgments of others, while offering prejudicial judgments of our own. We’re asking to be judged as individuals. Yet too many of us are judging others as members of a privileged whole. It’s a cognitive dissonance that creates an intellectual log jam preventing meaningful discourse and stymieing real social progress.
What we call “white privilege” is not something that white America does to us. It’s something that particular individuals do to us. If you’re being watched by a store clerk who thinks you might steal something because you’re black, you’re not being judged by white America. You’re being judged by that clerk. Does it really matter whether that clerk is white or Asian or Hispanic or even another black person? If they’re making assumptions about you based solely on race, isn’t that the problem rather than the color of their skin?
If our goal as people of color is to pursue a society without racism, we must define our terms and make sure others understand what we mean. Anecdotally, I can tell you that most white people I know respond negatively to claims of racism. Evoking racism doesn’t open minds and advance a dialogue. It antagonizes and closes people off.
When you say “racism,” you may mean it in the systematic sense where cultural interactions weave together into a tapestry of privilege and injustice. But that’s not what white America hears. What they hear is lynching and slavery and the Ku Klux Klan. They hear ruined reputations and pink slips. If you want to talk about systematic problems, perhaps we need to craft another term.
In my experience, there are plenty of folks from all walks of life who are sympathetic to the need for criminal justice reform and other systematic reforms necessary to alleviate the racial disparities which exist in our society. A chance exists in this turbulent moment to forge a powerful alliance from the fire of discontent and secure meaningful change that will enrich all our lives. But our moment drifts as a whisper upon the wind and could easily be blown away by the wrong rhetoric.
Riots are not justice. We must start with that unequivocal truth and set an example rooted in the lessons of the civil rights era. It may not be enough to condemn riots, as Martin Luther King once said. But it is nonetheless essential to. Condemn all violence, no matter its source. Condemn all prejudicial judgment, no matter its target. Condemn all forms of irrationality and tyranny, and pursue liberty and justice for all.