The Racism Arms Race was the first of my articles suggested by the paid subscribers here at The Commentary (sign up if you’d like to weigh in on the next one), and it was both more challenging and more rewarding than expected.
In the subscriber thread we hit upon the topic of racial divisiveness and I wanted to put that divisiveness in a new perspective. But doing so in a way that presented the situation, and the causes of it, without being more divisive was tricky, to say the least.
In the end, the article was a plea for people, black and white, to look at racism from the other perspective. To see that we’re both capable of inflicting injustice and of being victims of it. To recognise that this game of point-scoring and one-upmanship doesn’t end well for anybody.
It was a message that I had to repeat a few times before some people managed to get it. This conversation, with a reader who I’ll call Rob, was one of the better examples.
I do very much appreciate the effort you have made here to publicly convince people to drop the current mutually destructive behavior of today's racism arms race, and instead come together in conversation. I do also agree that we all have a stake in ridding ourselves of the injustice that is racism and we ignore it at our peril.
I also agree that it is going to take great courage, as it always has, to look past selfishness, tribalism and bitterness to begin to have conversations, public conversations, face to face.
My first gut reaction to this story was: "there is something missing...". Upon reflection, I think I have hit upon what was nagging me. I noticed a complete lack of acknowledgement of the private efforts that many individual Americans (mostly working class) have already made towards the end of coming together. You moved straight from Mamie Till to the present day and ignored everything in between. Many private moments of courage have taken place in America since the Civil Rights Acts were passed. Those moments involved difficult and awkward conversations between family members, co-workers and neighbors. They were rarely eloquent or recorded for posterity. But they happened. The working class has never had the luxury of creating lasting bubbles around ourselves. Once integration, in the 70's and 80's, was truly forced, we were in it, together, like it or not. The multiculturalism movement, which admittedly had flaws, as well as the increase in the number of bi-racial citizens are proof that some progress has already been made toward the goal of coming together.
I think that if we ignore the context that you ignored, or the progress that has been made, we likewise do that at our peril. We can learn much from all of the past.
There are as many different experiences of racism as there are human beings. And I have no doubt that Rob’s experience includes these “difficult and awkward conversations”. Mine does too.
But there are many other conversations that Rob seems to have paid less attention to.
That little tinge of defensiveness we get when it seems as if a part of our story has been omitted is completely natural. And it’s important to recognise it. But it’s also important—I’d argue more important—to consider whether there’s anything else that’s missing.
Noticing the first part comes naturally. Noticing the second part takes practice.
I noticed a complete lack of acknowledgement of the private efforts that many individual Americans (mostly working class) have already made towards the end of coming together.
Hmmm, I'm not sure how I can acknowledge something that I have no evidence of. The fact there's been progress since the days of Emmett Till should go without saying, no? But these private efforts, though I don't doubt they exist, are just that. Private. Almost by definition there's not much I can say about them.
Also, though I've never denied that there has been progress, it could just as easily be argued that I "left out" decades of cruelty, violence and bigotry. The road from Mamie Till to today has been anything but smooth for black people in America. I also left out all the private conversations like this one to give just one example of many that I do have evidence of.
I left these out because the entire point was to leave out the point scoring. I'm not trying to defend white people or criticise them. Though to be honest, if I was trying to give a totally honest accounting, I'm not sure these mostly working class Americans would come off too well. My point is that people need to move past the defensiveness and the blaming and come together.
Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like you're trying to defend "your side" in this debate. I'm trying to point beyond that way of thinking.
I don't wish to seem as if I am defending "my side". In reality I don't feel as though I even have a "side". I am just a human being living in America, not by choice but by birth, like the vast majority of us. The fact of the matter is, because engaging in conversation, or debate, requires putting forth suppositions and then defending them, I don't know how not to seem defensive. Do you? I would argue that, even with your stated goal, you weren't able to completely avoid defensiveness in your response to me. I am just not sure that we will ever be able to "get past" or avoid that way of thinking because that way of thinking is part of who we are as humans. Does that mean we will always "keep score" to some extent? I honestly don't know. Maybe these things are above my pay grade ? Maybe the best we can hope for is that people aim at not keeping score during difficult conversations? None of us are perfect. We will inevitably miss the target.
I am going to continue to look for peoples humanity first, as often as I am able. I am going to continue to have messy, sometimes seemingly impolite conversations, regardless of whether I am "doing it right". If that means I am not allowed out in public, so be it. I am used to it.
It will go without saying, that the many private conversations from over the last fifty years, are exactly the place where the cloistered could have had a chance to learn about our common humanity and shared fate. If they are actually still that ignorant. It will also have to go without saying, that those same conversations are what has been slowly, but surely, smothering the fire in the house that is America. I am just going to keep beating back the flames, to the best of my ability, until the fire is out. Or die trying.
Yeah, I'm not expecting perfection in these conversations at all, I wasn't annoyed at the point you made, I was just pointing out that while you note that I didn't talk about the private efforts of individuals I don't know, you didn't note all the ways in which progress has been opposed. You're asking for balance in a way that seems inherently unbalanced.
This is something I see a lot in these conversations. As I point out in the article, your personal experience is important, I'm not trying to refute it, but to talk about these things compassionately, it's at least as important to think about the experiences of people who don't look like you.
I see lots of white people complaining about how they're being demonised at the moment, and I understand their feelings. But far fewer talk about how black people have been demonised for generations while they did and said nothing. I see white people talking about how progress has been made, and it has. But far fewer talk about how unnecessarily hard and bloody that progress has been and how much more is still needed. I see black people talking about how white people mistreat them, and some do. But far fewer are willing to admit how much they're enjoying the chance to be just as bad.
So when you say that I didn't mention these private efforts (which as I said I can't really know about), I can't help but notice that you don't mind that I didn't mention the private racism that black people regularly experience. That's why I felt your view was focused on "your side".
All that said, I didn't mean to come across defensively. These conversations are important and as you say, are inevitably imperfect. Hope I didn't give the impression that I don't support your right to express yourself, just trying to add to your perspective.
Blind spots can only be seen by contrast. Not by what we notice, but by recognising what we tend not to notice. It’s about developing the habit of asking if what we’re saying applies to “the other side”. Again, doing this when you feel as if you’re under attack is incredibly difficult. Which is why it requires conscious practice.
Okay, I can pull back a bit and see the bigger picture now. Sometimes when you are in the middle of things, it is difficult to see everything that is happening. You are right. My view was unbalanced. It isn't fair of me to ask you to see what you haven't acknowledged, especially if I don't expect the same from myself. You chose the perfect word to help me add to my perspective. Thank you. Your gentle way of holding me to account is also appreciated. It kept me engaged instead of walking away.
It is going to take practice to discipline myself to look for that unbalance prior to hitting the respond button. Going forward, I will put effort toward that goal. We both acknowledge that racism isn't an easy topic to discuss. I think it will get easier if we all try to be more balanced.
Thank you so much for this. This is exactly what it's about. As we've both noted, perfection isn't realistic for any of us, but consciously making that effort means so much and makes such a huge difference to how conversations unfold. Both white and black people need to get better at this if we're going to make progress.
Thanks again. Your response made my day.
To say that this is a sensitive topic is an understatement. Everybody’s emotions are high, everybody has reason to feel wronged, everybody feels as if they’re personally under attack. None of us likes to feel we’re being demonised, and when we do, it’s extremely hard to look beyond what’s happening to us and “our side”.
But when we say that the work of ending racism is difficult, this is what that means. It means challenging ourselves to look at the people who we feel are attacking us and focus on their side of the story, on their motivations, on their humanity.
The fact that this is so difficult to do, is why the effects of racism have persisted for so long. And why ending it sometimes feels so impossible. But every conversation like this reminds me that we can do it.