Learning to Listen About Race

I was raised by racists.

Not cross-burners and Klan members, but racists all the same.

My mother sat my sister and I down when we were in middle-school, telling us not to date anyone outside our race. She posed it as a problem of us being “accepted as a couple,” but the message was clear.

My older cousins would crack one-liners about the noise a chainsaw makes when you start it up being “Run n—–, n—–, run.” They thought it was hilarious.

The joke books my parents bought me when I showed an interest in comedy never mentioned Latinos, only “Mexicans,” and only when they were the butt of the joke, sometimes being thrown from airplanes by virtuous (read “white”) Texans.

When I grew older, I rejected this casual racism, just as I rejected my family’s religion and their politics. I thought I was free of prejudice. I thought my generation would grow up and replace the older racists in charge. That it was only a matter of time before racism was over.

Then Barack Obama was elected President. My wife and I watched the returns come in together, excited to see it happen. A Democrat back in office. And a black man. We’d done it!

Only we hadn’t. My family’s racism went from casual to angry. Their party turned, too, going from dog-whistling Dixie to embracing white nationalists.

Taking a knee at a ball game became an act of utmost disrespect, because a black man did it. A Republican Governor’s plan for decreasing health care costs became “death panels,” because a black man embraced it.

It blindsided me, this vitriol. I wasn’t prepared for it, didn’t know how to handle it.

Of course, minorities had always known it was there. They’d been living it, their whole lives.

So I’ve been trying to listen more. Both in person, and by seeking out books that will teach me.

Here’s three I’ve read recently that have shaken me out of my complacency, and showed me some of the structure of American racism. A structure I hadn’t been able to see before, because it was never meant to hold me in.

Just millions of my fellow citizens.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book that first opened my eyes to the constraints and the artificiality of “white” and “black.” Powerfully, movingly written, it showed me how the American conception of race has been used to divide and oppress.

It also pushed me to question my own whiteness, and to look back to a time when I would not have been considered “white.” My family’s Irish and Blackfoot; for most of American history I would have been excluded from “white” society.

That doesn’t mean I have any special insight into what African-Americans have been through and continue to experience. Rather, it taught me that whiteness or blackness has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with power and hierarchy. It is, fundamentally, about perpetuating injustice.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve written about this one before, and the effect it had on me.

Before reading it, I had no idea just how lucky I was to have gone through life without ending up in jail. That I didn’t, even though I was raised poor, is not a testament to my behavior, but an indicator of my acceptance as “white” by American society.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

A hard book to read, but a necessary one. Breaks down the reasons why even well-meaning “white” people like me get defensive and lash out if their racism is called out.

It’s hard to write that sentence, to own the fact that though I consider all people to be equal, and don’t consiously hold any prejudice, there are things I will do and say that will hurt and offend people. And that while I cannot prevent the fact that I will make mistakes, I must be open to having those mistakes called out, and be willing to be better.

It’s the hardest lesson for me to learn. Because it’s one thing to have your eyes opened to the bad behavior of others. Another to realize that you’re part of the problem, and if you don’t become more aware, and less defensive, it’s not going to get better.