Not avoiding talk about race

The posters are well-known by now: “White silence = white consent.” It was clear from half a block away that this was a Black Lives Matter protest march.

That whites are being asked to put ourselves on the line is evident, but I’m not sure how to do that.

Maybe it’s my introverted nature, but in-your-face protest is not me. Also, I feel that it’s too broad a brushstroke to imply that all police are bad. I like how President Obama is trying to make us stop seeing the issue of police brutality in us-versus-them terms.

Or maybe I'm just letting myself off the hook.

Passivity is being challenged. Doing nothing is almost as bad a response as violence, a black activist said in an Associated Press story after the horrible week of shootings by and of police. White liberals are being called on to do more than try to treat everyone decently.

I did challenge someone who said that blacks “are committing crimes and the police get into trouble.” Traffic stops, I said — not crimes. But that’s barely moving out of my comfort zone. It’s not like putting my body on the line on the street.

I’ve tutored and mentored minority youth through organized programs, but I’m pretty sure the man quoted in the aforementioned story wasn’t talking about tutoring when he said that whites need to develop more empathy with blacks. Tutoring and mentoring are one-way interactions that maintain an inherently superior helping role. The situations didn’t produce much learning in the other direction.

Empathy means being able to understand how you would feel in similar circumstances. I have no idea how I would feel if I were stopped by a police officer and feared for my life.

Empathy, it seems to me, requires meeting as equals.

RaShelle R. Peck, an academic writing on thefeministwire.com, noted the “curious lack of Black people” in white liberal social circles. I see it in my own life and that of others I know. I have no close black or Latino friends.

In classes and at work, the usual places for making friends, there were few if any nonwhites until my last job. Nothing else I did put me in regular contact with people of color.

In my early years on my last job, an African American coworker objected to the Michael Jordan poster on my office wall (“He isn’t an appropriate role model for young blacks.”). Another time, I was told that it was intrusive to ask whether two black coworkers on vacation at the same time had traveled together. I was afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing again, and so kept my conversation superficial.

We white liberals like to pat ourselves on the back for not being racist, but one message coming through lately is that we don’t really get it. We don’t realize the extent of our white privilege, we don’t know what life is like without that privilege.

Between Riverside and Crazy, the current show at Steppenwolf, is eerily timely about how differently blacks and whites see things. Lead character “Pops,” a black ex–New York City cop who was shot by a white patrolman when off duty, has an unresolved lawsuit for racism against the city since the shooting eight years before. I thought at first that Pops’s long-time police partner and her fiancé, both white cops, were concerned about his welfare when they encouraged him to settle. I thought Pops was being unreasonably stubborn in refusing. In the second act, it was clear just whose interests the white cops were promoting. Pops was right to suspect their motives. But the woman, and maybe the guy, could have been deceiving themselves, too; they may have thought they really were on Pops’s side.

How do we gain empathy? Certainly we need to talk. We can’t understand how someone else feels without listening to them.

I’m not sure yet where I’ll find opportunities, but I’m going to try to not avoid conversations with African American people about race.

A good starting point would be to say something like, “I can’t begin to understand, but please try to teach me.”

I’m not pretending that talking is enough, but it’s a first step.

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  • "We don’t realize the extent of our white privilege, we don’t know what life is like without that privilege..."

    It is admirable that you concede that there is a curious lack of people of color in the daily lives of many liberal and progressive people, actual firends, neighbors.

    This is what I find so hypocritical about the many, many pundits and bloggers, many right here on CN pages, all of them whiter than whit , that are so very good about telling the rest of the world how to listen to Black Lives Matter and to join the frey when they have no idea what life is like on the south and west sides, because not only do they not live there they have never even BEEN there.

    They pen their narratives about some strange thing called "white privlidge", which I can assure you may only exist in the most upscale of neighborhoods in Chicago and the suburbs. In reality, most of us are without any privlidge of any sort and just try to get through our days.

    Today, in one of the south suburbs I saw two police cars surrounding a car. The officers were approaching the car with their hands inches from their firearms. The man inside was white. This is not uncommon, but it might be the "white privlidge" that some who live along the gold coast or North Shore might never experience, because the main crime in town in these places is maybe a drunken patron at a five star restaurant.

    You wrote an honest piece. Thank you. I am so used to seeing the hubris of the ill informed and out-of-touch.

  • Thank you for sharing. I truly enjoyed reading it. Talking is always the first step.

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