White Girl Trying to Stay Woke

Recently I read an article in the New York Times about people like myself, wanting recognition for our newfound social awareness.  It’s silly, and I hesitate to write about racism because I’m so unqualified.  But then I think about all of us in our echo-chambers and I think of my days largely sheltered from confronting these issues and I see how friends I trusted and admired helped me gain my newfound social awareness.  Maybe if we’re not willing to listen to people who are different from us, we could be willing to listen to people who are like us. I’ve learned things I can’t unlearn, I’ve seen things that I can’t un-see and maybe my experiences can matter to you. I understand that we are all only capable of forming our opinions based on the information and experiences we are given. I’m not quite sure how far my experiences can go in forming someone else’s opinion, but I believe in being authentic. While I don’t consider myself a millennial, I guess I identify with the generation enough to be willing to wear my social views on my sleeve.  I’ve narrowed my thoughts on race issues in America down to two main points. 

First- it requires a certain degree of humility to acknowledge our own prejudices.  Instead of being dismissive and defensive about what is in our heart, we can be more honest and self-aware about our feelings and fears. At first we don’t need to be judgmental of our own prejudices, we can begin by just discovering them.

When I was 14 my family was living in Fairfax, Virginia while my dad spent one year working in Washington D.C.  One Saturday afternoon my dad and I took the Metro out to visit a friend of his in Maryland.  I was really excited because we lived at the end of the orange line, near the Vienna station and we were going to ride the train the entire length of the line, across the city and into the Maryland New Carrollton station.  Riding the entire length of a Metro line was a bucket-list item of sorts for me.  When we arrived at New Carrollton we stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things to take to dinner.  While wandering the aisles it didn’t take me long to realize that my dad and I were the only white people in the store.  I felt my insides shrink a little bit, partly from the strange loneliness of feeling like an outsider, but also because of fear.  I was afraid because I was surrounded by black people.  I did not see myself as a racist, I was not raised by racist parents, but my 14 year old brain assumed that black people are inherently more violent because they are black. I didn’t think this on a conscious level, and logically I could talk myself out of it. Of course I was safe. But I was the product of a society that had in a thousand subtle and not so subtle ways conditioned me.  I don’t blame myself for the feelings that came to me, they were unintentional and unwelcome, but they came all the same. 

Now, as an adult, I can consciously acknowledge them.  I can be honest about their existence and in doing so I can begin to consider how to handle those feelings, and ponder why they came and what can be done about it.  Maybe it’s not fair to call my 14 year old self racist, maybe that word isn’t productive to the greater dialogue.  But there is no question that I had prejudices. 

Second – racism isn’t just about what is in our individual hearts.  I recently read a news article where a young woman defended herself against racism by saying that she had occasionally dated men of another race.  People frequently defend themselves against racism by saying they have friends or co-workers who are black.  But racism isn’t just about not hating black people, it is about making a deliberate effort to make sure they are given the same opportunities, even if doing so requires more effort. Racism is about the way we vote, the policies we enact and the laws we create that directly affect the lives of black people. 

There are still major gaps between black and white income, crime rates and education. What accounts for these major gaps? I’ve heard the implication that black people lack a good work ethic.  But you can’t very well preach from your pulpit that God created all men equally, except for the blacks who he created lazy. We built our country utilizing the work ethic of African slaves.   If I know it is wrong to ascribe to an entire race a singular characteristic like laziness or violence, I can only conclude that it is a problem with our system that is creating this great divide, not a problem with a group, or even a community of people.  And we are all responsible for that problem and for finding solutions.  I took an example from this article

Structural racism is the silent opportunity killer… it inevitably perpetuates barriers to opportunities and racial disparities. Conscious and unconscious racism continue to exist in our society. But structural racism feeds on the unconscious. Public and private institutions and individuals each build a wall. They do not necessarily build the wall to hurt people of color, but one wall is joined by another until they construct a labyrinth from which few can escape. They have walled in whole communities.

For example, a government agency decides that low-income housing must be built, which will house low-income Blacks and Latinos. It fails to look for locations near jobs and important infrastructure, like working schools, decent public transportation, and other services. In fact, it is built in a poor, mostly Black and Latino part of town. When the housing is built, the school district, already under-funded, has new residents too poor to contribute to its tax base. The local government spends its limited resources on transportation to connect largely white, well-to-do suburban commuters to their downtown jobs. The public housing residents are left isolated, in under-funded schools, with no transportation to job centers. Whole communities of people of color lose opportunities for a good education, quality housing, living wage jobs, services and support-systems.

In this example, no one individual stands in front of the doorway to a better life and says, “No Blacks/Latinos/ Native Americans/Asians allowed.” Race, however, is the unspoken motivator behind a series of actions which lead to decisions about where to place the walls… The structural arrangements produced by the walling off of resources and opportunities produces the racial disparities we see today in communities of color.”

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has written many things that have been painful for me to read and accept, but he IS the guy who is qualified to talk about racism.

“The ghettos of America are the direct result of decades of public-policy decisions: the redlining of real-estate zoning maps, the expanded authority given to prosecutors, the increased funding given to prisons. And all of this was done on the backs of people still reeling from the 250-year legacy of slavery. The results of this negative investment are clear—African Americans rank at the bottom of nearly every major socioeconomic measure in the country.”

Maybe social justice isn’t a priority for you, and maybe this won’t be your cause. But the least we can do is accept, encourage and passively (at a minimum) support movements like Black Lives Matter, rather than getting defensive and even hostile to their efforts. Racial inequality exists, and someone needs to make it their cause. BLM is not a threat, it is not bad for our country.  It is needed, it is useful, it champions liberty and fairness and equality, things we ALL agree on. Of course all lives matter, but white people don’t really need a movement.  Our movement has been centuries of advantage and prosperity.

In honor of Black History Month lets all read something about social justice in American today.  I’ll post a couple links below and I would love to read any suggestions you have for me! 



3 thoughts on “White Girl Trying to Stay Woke

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing this. My own experience and perspective is quite similar to yours. Although I try to resist applauding myself or others for caring about social justice (shouldn’t it be a given?), I do want to virtually high five you for your commitment to self-awareness, honesty, and vulnerability. Exercising those traits always takes courage, no matter what topic you are applying them too.


  2. Thanks for sharing your ideas! I like your idea that “you can’t very well preach from your pulpit that God created all men equally, except for the blacks who he created lazy.” Great point.

    There is a lot of research about institutionalized racism, such as the school to prison pipeline and unfair sentencing practices (e.g. disparity in mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine).

    We can only improve when we acknowledge the problem!


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