Along time ago, after a church service on a bright Sunday morning in the small town where I grew up, I heard one of the deacons tell another that he didn't believe colored people really wanted civil rights and integration. “If God had meant white people and black people to mix he would have made them one color,” he said. He made this claim in spite of the civil rights demonstrations that were going on in our home state of North Carolina and across the country, in spite of nonviolent and violent protests.
I have written a memoir about those years, during which I watched the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, and since its publication I have taken part in many conversations about race. In those discussions I have found that black people are all too aware that progress on racial issues has hardly moved forward at all, while white people are nearly as blind to their racism as ever.
One woman at an event on a university campus came up to ask me whether I thought her mother was a racist because she had refused to allow the family's maid to use their bathroom. After all, the family had finally put a little toilet into a closet off the laundry room so that she could use that.
Another woman spoke to me hesitantly, clearly troubled by the discussion about desegregation, to say that she had been raised in an all-white community and had never been confronted with those people — meaning black people — but she knew she had been raised with prejudice when she finally met some sensible black people who did not do all the looting and crime that the other ones did. She knew the sensible ones were just like her.
A man at a book festival insisted that no matter what anybody did or said, it would take generations before racism disappeared from the world — this in rebuttal to my claim that anyone could look into himself or herself, see the bigotry within, and do something about it.
A woman at another festival came up to me during the book signing, her eyes large and round, to say she had heard me speak, had thought about the issue (for the few minutes between the talk and the signing) and was sure she did not have “any of that” inside her. She walked away with her children in hand, comfortable that she had settled the issue for both of us.
More than simple anecdotes, these are symptoms of the insanity of white culture and our refusal to understand that racism is part of our makeup — each and every one of us, north, south, east and west — from cradle to grave.
We re-segregate our schools using every available strategy and continue to profit from long-standing systems that are biased toward the hiring, advancement and empowerment of white people, all the while decrying the racism we see in others, pointing fingers at this or that extremist. As if by saying, “That one is a racist,” we exonerate ourselves of the charge.
White liberals — and I am one — are adept at using these naming and shaming tactics to avoid looking inward. Comfortable in our beliefs, we ignore the fact that we sit inside an ideology of white superiority that gives us enormous advantages even when we mouth the right opinions, trade memes about the awful racist act that one of us committed, and pat ourselves on the back for our sensitivity.
Surrounded by a world that makes it clear that white people are only a minority part of the picture, we nevertheless go on making movies in which nearly everybody is white; we go on nominating white people to win all the best prizes — this year's Oscar nominations offer a glaring case in point — and we continue to write textbooks and develop educational curricula that surround white heroes with halos that throw the achievements of all other people into ghostly relief.
We set aside a month — this month — to oblige ourselves to pay lip service to black history, but what that means for white people is that we take a vacation from history — black history events are for black people, aren't they? The racists are the ones who burn crosses and lynch black people, aren't they?
During one interview on a radio talk show, a two-hour marathon of hard questions about my assertion that a great deal of racism is unconscious and unintended, the host of the show laid into me, stating that, since the system of racism in our country operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without mercy or letup, affecting every single black person alive in our country, how could it possibly be unconscious?
I had no answer to offer him, and I understood that once again I had failed to understand the racism that, after decades of awareness, probing and trying to change on my part, is still present in me, active in me and blinding me to its reality.
Jim Grimsley is a professor of creative writing at Emory University and the author of “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.”
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