Many white people want to stop talking about racism. Consciousness implies action, and that kind of talking about race, ethnicity, and racism produces thinkers who challenge the status quo. White people think that this made people of color dangerous. Americans are doing all they can to appear as if they are wrestling with race without admitting historical fault or committing to change. This will not do.
Many white people want to stop talking about racism.
This may not be expressed explicitly, but it is communicated nevertheless. Sometimes it’s articles shared on Facebook highlighting the unsurprising fact that police officers are killed in the line of duty. Other times it’s the pushback to the specificity of emphasis in the slogan #BlackLivesMatter. At times, it is a backlash against teaching histories of oppression in our K-12 public schools and criticisms of college diversity requirements that claim to celebrate difference while ignoring power. More poignantly, it is the way people who were once friends suddenly become distant because you’ve now become ‘too political’. These are all passive aggressive acts of racial distancing that communicate a desire on the part of those in the majority for minorities to suffer in silence.
Still worse are black manifestations of this sentiment. For many middle class black folks, the unspoken state of being is adjustment to injustice. Their way of thinking says, “I’m comfortable in my privilege working next to and with white people – please don’t mess that up.” Oppressed people so deeply identify with oppressive conceptual frames that they fail to see that those who speak truth to power, do so from a place of pain.
The insidious nature of white supremacy is such that black and brown people will more readily identify with the feelings of the dominant group about what is being said than with those expressing truths concerning the reality of their condition. Shame is so deeply felt that moments of individual black failure are worrisome because they ‘set black people back’. The goal implicitly articulated in this statement is white approval of black bodies and behaviour.
What’s worse, many of the same upwardly mobile black folks who try to silence others are themselves in pain. They intuitively see that they are ‘othered’ by white co-workers. They are not invited to the same social gatherings. They are only consulted when sports or hip-hop are the topic of conversation. And their children are sometimes welcomed to play with at the house of their white friends, but white children never visit the house of the black child. These are the concessions. This is the price of the ticket. You get access to white spaces. You get access to economic opportunity, but you are perpetually an outsider. You are never fully accepted. White Americans want cosmetic diversity without the burden of black and brown political and social consciousness. This desire for black and brown faces without a commitment to egalitarianism is widespread.
There is a push for diversity in education and business. Due to the wave of political awareness sweeping the nation, those in power have come to the realisation that it would be wise to have an intermittent black or brown face in an otherwise white workforce or on a predominately white college campus. These superficial gestures toward diversity are undermined by attempts to hire ‘safe’ black and brown people, where safe is understood as unthreatening in every aspect save skin color.
The safe black woman laughs when people touch her hair uninvited, even if uncomfortable, because she does not want to be perceived as an angry black woman. Yet, if a white woman were touched without permission, no one would consider her angry for accusing the transgressor of sexual harassment. The safe English-dominant Latina smiles, bewildered, and laughs it off when she is told she speaks English well. She doesn’t remind them that she was born in the US and hardly speaks Spanish. The safe black man dresses the part and goes out of his way to put white cohorts at ease. He wants them to know that his blackness will not be a barrier that must be overcome. He will do all he can to not remind his co-workers of his racial identity. These hires give a workplace the appearance of diversity without a change to the cultural landscape.
As the familiar words of Audre Lorde tell us, “Your silence will not protect you.” Safety and silence keep the landscape undisturbed, and we trade individual short-term success for the social change that dismantles the “master’s house.” Choosing to use your voice and throw caution to the wind is not an easy thing to do. Just this week the only black engineer in a leadership position at Twitter left the company because of “diversity issues”. Leslie Miley said that a “particular low moment” came when he asked about specific steps that were being taken to increase diversity and “Twitter’s senior VP of Engineering responded, “Diversity is important, but we won’t lower the bar.”” The racist stereotype that diversity meant lowered standards is part of the workplace landscape. Miley left without the severance package that would guarantee his silence. Instead, he chose not to be silent or safe; he chose to speak about racism at Twitter.
When resources are not a central consideration, one of the conundrums we face in this country in deciding to be complicit or conscious is the divide between those who believe that we don’t talk about race enough and those who think we talk about it ‘too much’. Inevitably, both the defensiveness of ‘I’m-Not-Racist’ or even ‘How-Dare-You?-I’m-An-Ally’ white folks and the internalised racism of people of colour, who think that they are choosing safety, collude to make any meaningful conversation about race nearly impossible. No one wants to feel uncomfortable…but where has comfort gotten us? It keeps whiteness – as institutionalised power – in place, inter-personal relationships invulnerable, the ‘colonised mind’ in check, and violence, whether physical or psychological, towards marginalisation of people of colour normalised.
An important way that talking about racism is thwarted in America is the fact that our educational system ignores the histories and experiences of people of colour. White students don’t have to confront this country’s misdeeds and people of colour never learn their histories. When this material is included, it is presented as marginal to true (white) American history – or it may be distorted altogether. Consider, for example, the recent case of a K-12 textbook referring to slaves as immigrant workers. In one fell swoop, a history of horrific violence. Similarly, just last month, South Dakota secretly eliminated Native history from public schools. As the Lakota Law Project reports:
The removal of lesson plans relating to the long and complex conflict between Native peoples and the United States Government will only exacerbate this issue, and make it harder for young people in South Dakota to develop a fair understanding of the historical context and causations for the current conditions faced by Native peoples.
A final example of this trend, although there are others, is the 2010 state of Arizona ban on ethnic studies courses. Specifically, HB 2281 prohibits courses that “are designed primarily for those of a particular ethnic group” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of people as individuals.” Let that sink in: they LEGALLY banned ethnic studies. When an Arizona high school did try to make learning about ethnicity and race central to curriculum through a course on Chicano Ethnic Studies, the course was accused of promoting resentment towards whites. It was dismantled through the use of the legislation. That course was a model for the retention of Mexican American students:
While 48 percent of Mexican American students currently drop out of high school, Tucson High’s Mexican American Studies Program has become a national model of educational success with 100 percent of enrolled students graduating from high school and 85 percent going on to attend college.
They did not want these students to develop consciousness about their histories and social identities even if it was keeping them from dropping out of school. In their book Chicana/o Identity in a changing U.S. Society, social psychologists Aida Hurtado and Patricia Gurin, define consciousness as the following:
…whether individuals are aware that the groups they belong to hold a certain status (either powerful or not powerful) in society and whether they will take action to change this status, not just for themselves, but for other members of the group as well.
These students would not seek white approval. They would not hang their heads in shame. They would have pride in their histories. They would be conscious. And this made them dangerous. Consciousness implies action, and that kind of talking about race, ethnicity, and racism produces thinkers who challenge the status quo.
Americans are doing all they can to appear as if they are wrestling with race without admitting historical fault or committing to change. This will not do. This country needs to come to terms with the evil it has committed. Native Americans must be given the voice and the space to allow their suffering to speak. We must have frank conversations about the psychological violence inflicted upon that oppressed community that contemporaneously manifests as suicide rates, poverty, and educational marginalisation. Black and brown people must be allowed to voice their displeasure with a criminal justice system that systematically targets, imprisons, and exploits them. We must examine the ways implicit and explicit bias lowers the educational, economic, and political potentiality of these marginalised populations. To ignore suffering is to become complicit. When we go along to get along and play the role of the safe black or brown person, we are complicit as well.
About the Author
Lawrence Ware is an Oklahoma State University Division of Institutional Diversity Fellow. He teaches in OSU’s philosophy department and is the Diversity Coordinator for its Ethics Center. A frequent contributor to the publication The Democratic Left and contributing editor of the progressive publication RS: The Religious Left, he has also been a commentator on race and politics for the Huffington Post Live, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and PRI’s Flashpoint. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebecca Martinez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri. She is a medical anthropologist whose research encompasses issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender as related to cancer and reproductive health. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyGMartinez