Saturday, November 1, 2014

R is for Resentment?

I'm reading a book called "Americanah," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. LOVE it. Adichie is a Nigerian author who explores U.S. race relations through the eyes of her fictional character, Ifemelu. As an outsider looking in, Ifemelu notices the hierarchies and sub-hiearchies of race. Like me, she is a blogger, but unlike me, her posts are witty, poignant, lucrative, and frequent. She blogs about how people respond to her as a dark skinned woman, and explores topics like racial profiling and the privileging of lighter skin and straighter hair among whites and people of color.

My favorite blog post by Ifemelu is titled, "Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend." She describes the sense of appreciation and relief she feels when she comes across "The White Friend Who Gets It." The White Friend Who Gets It understands how centuries of racism have created systems of oppression that perpetuate poverty and lack of opportunity for some and advantage for others. He or she understands that race really does still matter in this country. Let The White Friend Who Gets It speak for you, Ifemelu suggests, because whiteness allows your friend to say stuff to other whites that black people can't. (I've seen this many times in my classes - when a white person writes about racism, it's ok, but when a black person writes the very same things white students dismiss the work as "biased.")

Why don't more of us white people "get it"? Why is there such division and polarization in the way that many whites (at least many of the whites I know) and many African Americans, especially, view race? As Adichie points out through Ifemelu, polls show that most whites think racism is over and most blacks think it isn't. What quality is required what quality stands in the way of getting it for so many of us?

Taking the all I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten approach, I think it's pretty simple. It's about empathy and the willingness to grow past egocentricity. I need to understand that my experience may not be the experience of people around me. For me, racism is not an issue because I'm white. I'm part of the dominant culture. For someone else, racism is an issue. Even if I don't understand it, can't I accept that racism exists because people who have experienced racism tell me it exists? Do I have to experience something personally in order for it to be true?

Of course not. But resentment stands in the way of empathy and fuels egocentricity. If we, as whites, spend all of our psychic energy feeling blamed and defensive over the topic of racism, we will resent, rather than understand, people of color who share their experiences with racism. That wall of resentment will cause us to say things like, "Black people can be racist, too," and "My uncle didn't get a job because a black person got it," and "I'm not racist, but black people should stop acting like victims and get over it," etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, you should read the book. Ifemelu says it much better than I ever could. And then maybe more of us could try a little bit harder to be a white friend who gets it.

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