I had a hard time sleeping last night. It was the voices.
No, I'm not losing it (yet). The voices I heard were real - they were the voices of people who shared openly and honestly last night at a community forum on race. Twenty-five or so folks of diverse racial backgrounds met in a small room at a public library to talk about race relations. I spoke a little but mostly I listened to the voices of African American neighbors in pain. Here's some of what I heard:
"Why did it take me so long to get a job? I have a degree and ten years of experience. I was told several times that I was the most qualified. So why did it take me so long to get a job?"
"Why do I have to see Confederate flags in people's windows when I walk to work? Do they understand what that symbol means? Why do my kids have to see that symbol of hate when they walk to school every day?"
"The N-word is flown like crazy here. Why is there so much anger in this area?"
"I was raised to respect authority. I'm proud to have served my country in the military. Why do I have to be afraid when a police car slows near me?"
"Why was my daughter treated so poorly by some of the white athletes at her high school? And why didn't the administration do anything about it when I complained?"
As a white person, I can never fully understand what it must feel like to live with questions like these every day of my life. As a white person, I have the privilege of pulling race out of my back pocket when I feel like dealing with it and keeping it safely tucked away there when I don't. As a white person, I don't have to live with the hurt. But I hear it. And I'm sorry.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Have you noticed that conversations about race often result in anger? And, for better or worse, social media has provided a ripe environment for the expression of that anger. Take, for example, the latest controversy over the decision by several NFL players to use body language during the playing of the National Anthem to express dissatisfaction over the treatment of people of color in this country. Most players are “taking a knee” (a position associated with prayer in religious traditions and with quiet respect for an injured player in sports), although a few have sat or raised fists in protest. None of this is new, of course. A very long time ago some kids at my high school sat when the National Anthem was played during school assemblies to protest the war in Vietnam. I was one of them. Back then, no one seemed to care all that much, at least in my New York City public school. There were no cameras recording our every move and as long as we were quiet, the teachers didn’t say a word about it.
Today, however, this kind of stuff is making some folks very angry. I’m not afraid of anger – in fact, I find it to be a familiar companion. It doesn’t take much to annoy me and I’m usually perfectly happy to tell you how the world would be a better place if only people did things my way. Though I try to be a nice person, I can be a little crotchety and you’ll want to keep your distance if I’m hungry – “hangry” is the better term. But the kind of anger I’m talking about is a much stronger emotion. It’s much deeper than my flittering annoyance – it lives in a hidden place where it smolders quietly, ready to explode when someone primes the pump. Some of the nicest people I know, kind, caring people, can let loose a rage on Facebook that leaves me concerned and a little perplexed. And while I think that anger can benefit us if it spurs us to some needed action, it can also blind us. Left unexamined, anger can block other important emotions like empathy, kindness, and supportiveness. It can hinder our ability to understand someone else’s perspective. So, anger should be fully explored. Where is the anger that surrounds issues of race coming from? What’s at the bottom of it, and why is it so tenacious?
Let me give you an example of some fairly explosive anger I witnessed first hand over the topic of race relations. I was researching 11th grade honors students’ responses to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s devastating depiction of Depression era racism in the U.S. The book especially focuses on the emotional damage inflicted on African American women by the dominance of white beauty standards. The students’ responses formed the basis of chapter four in my book, Race Among Friends.
If you’ve read The Bluest Eye you know that the content is enough to make anyone angry. African Americans in the novel are treated deplorably, but the treatment of the children is especially hard to take. Reading that book could and should make anyone angry. If it doesn’t, we’re either heartless or we’ve shielded ourselves from anything other than happy, positive feelings (unless something goes wrong that directly affects us personally, of course. Then it’s okay to feel angry or sad). So, one might have expected the African American students in the class to respond to Morrison’s text in anger. Reading the brutal details of how one’s ancestors were treated simply because of the color of their skin could, understandably, make one angry.
I’d like to start this paragraph with the words, “Imagine my surprise,” but the truth is I was not surprised at all at what happened in that classroom. Because I’ve been talking about race for a long time in a variety of settings, I wasn’t surprised at who got angry and who didn’t. It wasn’t the black kids who got angry. It wasn’t the kids who had to read about people of their background being degraded and humiliated who lashed out in anger at their classmates. It was the white kids. And they weren’t angry about the treatment of the characters in the novel, either. No. They were angry that we were reading the story at all. In their view, racism was over and they were sick of hearing about it. Slavery happened a long time ago – why couldn’t people just get over it? Why couldn’t the young girl in the story who was made to feel that her blackness made her ugly just look in the mirror and say, “I’m beautiful”? The deeper we delved into the book, the angrier the white kids became. “Why are you trying to make us feel guilty?” they demanded to know. Racism was not their fault. Racism was over. And the more we pointed out ways that racism is not, in fact, over, the more strongly they resisted. When their African American “friends” in the class tried to explain their point of view, many white students simply could not or would not understand. Their anger stood in the way. So what was going on here? What was the source of all this anger?
Back to those NFL protests – why does the peaceful protest of a few football players generate such an intensity of anger for some? Is it the form the protest is taking – the perceived disrespect to the symbols of our nation? What would be a better form of protest? Picketing? Stopping traffic? A work stoppage? A boycott? Disruption of a government function? How about instituting a government shutdown with possible loss of pay for thousands of veterans? For some, the symbols of the flag and the National Anthem have been elevated to religious status and any deviation from the proper body language (even not placing one’s hand over one’s heart during the Pledge) is an insult that cannot be tolerated.
But I think there’s more going on here. I believe that the anger expressed through social media over the NFL players’ protest is comparable to that of those 11th graders reading The Bluest Eye. Deep down, some folks just don’t understand what the protest is about. These folks may be angry because they feel national symbols are being disrespected (although Colin Kaepernick, the 49er who started it all, has repeatedly said he intends no disrespect), but they are also angry at the claim that racism still exists. Just like those high school students, they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Some of them might believe that if anyone is being discriminated against, it’s whites – whites who don't get jobs, whites who don’t get scholarships, whites who don’t get whatever, because less deserving black people get them instead. And it is often the case that when whites perceive a potential loss of their position of dominance, anger is the result.
This also explains why some whites simply cannot understand the Black Lives Matter movement, no matter how many times it’s explained to them. Admitting that racial discrimination still exists and that whites hold an advantaged status may require the willingness to give up that unearned advantage. For some, this takes the idea of racial justice entirely too far.
I heard a young black male put it this way. He shook his head in quiet resignation and said, “Black Lives Matter has been around for a long time now. It’s been explained over and over. I’ve come to realize that if people still don’t understand, it’s because they don’t want to understand.” Note, this young man was not angry, only painfully resigned.
So I’ll end by encouraging us all to examine our anger. Think about where your anger is coming from. For those of Christian faith, remember that the Bible instructs us to “Be angry, yet do not sin. Do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:26 & 27). If a desire to hang on to the status quo is fueling your anger, it might be time to take a closer look. We all feel angry sometimes, but if we let that anger block our ability to think logically, to feel empathy, or to understand someone else’s perspective, only trouble will result.