TL;DR “Fellow white people: sit down, shut up, and open your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you.”
I first arrived in the USA in 1985, a naïve grad student who thought years of watching TV shows like Hill Street Blues and Dallas had given me a decent background on what life would be like here.
My first “things are not what you think” came only a few days later. A friend’s parents invited me to a backyard barbecue—twenty or so well-meaning, educated, middle-aged and solidly middle-class white people. They were delightful; until someone made a comment about race. This was only a few months after the Philadelphia police department had dropped a literal bomb on the roof of a building housing black anti-government activists, and periodic protests had continued through the summer months.
I still vividly remember the comment: “I just don’t understand what these people want!”
Other people at the barbecue joined in, making statements about ”they need educating” and “they’re not really like us” and “I can’t understand what they say.” I was stunned. I’d heard these kinds of comments for years back in the UK, uttered by middle/upper class people against the poor and working class. I’d encountered such people for the first time when I went to university and quickly learned to hide my distinctly working-class and regional accent. I became a chameleon and learned to pass.
But the utterances at that sunny Sunday afternoon barbecue left me floored. Don’t get me wrong, I was profoundly aware of discussions about race—but in Leicester in the 1970s the narrative was all around issues of immigration. “XX go home!” was the chant of the racists pouring out their hatred on people of Indian, Pakistani, and Afro-Caribbean descent. I naively assumed that things in America would be different—the whole country was descended from immigrants (willing and otherwise) and the civil rights movement had happened more than 20 years earlier. America had moved on, right?
I quickly learned otherwise.
Over the years I’d be aware, like any good white progressive, that things were not as they seemed. I remember one day noticing a building site on campus, with 20 or so men of all colors working on the scaffolding. When the whistle blew for lunch, they all climbed down and sat along a wall, unpacking their bags and boxes to eat. All half-dozen or so Black workers sat together on one end of the wall, the white workers sat at the other end, and the Latinos perched uneasily in the middle.
Still, life got in the way. I was absorbed with school, career, family. Every so often I’d shake my head at some awful bit of racist claptrap and think, “there are still some crazies out there,” then get back on with my life.
Then came Obama’s election. The staggering levels of vitriol directed his way during the campaign. The foaming-at-the-mouth hysteria of the so-called Birther movement (people insisting that this Black man wasn’t born in America, so he wasn’t eligible to be president; Trump was a leading proponent). It dawned on me that the racism was more than just a few idiots and that some of them had voices that were heard far and wide. Fox News was suddenly more than a joke; it was spreading this stuff.
But I didn’t really start to wake up until a couple of years ago, when I read a twitter thread that still burns my heart. I’d started following a Black SciFi author whose work I really admire, and through her posts and retweets of other Black writers and commentators, had started to realize that there was a whole lot I just didn’t see. I learned the phrase “white privilege” for the first time (I know, late in life but I’m working on it).
I learned to notice how fiction writers address race—describing the color of a Black or brown character’s skin, but never that of a white character. Because white is the default setting that we all just assume is present.
I learned that yes, I had spent years feeling out of place as I hid my background and accent in order to ‘fit in’, but I can pass as middle class, especially in America where they assume a British accent means clever and cultured. Had I been anything other than lily white it would have been 100 times harder.
I saw the move “The Hate You Give” and realized that yes, as the mother of sons, I had taught them to be respectful and careful around the police: “Don’t answer back, don’t argue, just do what they say.” But I had never once thought that I should teach them how to avoid getting shot during a traffic stop: “Put your hands on the dashboard and keep them there; don’t make eye contact; say ‘sir’ a lot; never ever reach for something in your pocket or the glovebox.” And even if they followed all those rules, they may be get killed. The realization that Black acquaintances carried this burden was gut wrenching.
Then came the tweet: A Black woman asking something like, “Hands up sisters, how many of you have had a white woman stranger just come up and touch your hair?”
I was floored. That really happens? I started reading through the responses, found one who said, “It’d be easier to ask if any of us have never had this happen.”
Fellow white women, think about that. Think about the lived experience where total strangers assume it’s OK to violate your personal space and touch your hair.
And that’s what really brought it home to me, that being white means we get to drift through life in a state of blinkered ignorance, assuming that our experience is everyone’s experience because this society amplifies our voices in a way that silences others’.
So yes, the civil rights movement happened over 50 years ago and yes, we elected a Black president for eight glorious years, and yes, we all carry burdens and have Stuff we have to overcome.
But fellow white people, listen up: Black people have been trying to tell us for years that there’s a profound problem with racism in this country and we either didn’t listen or politely nodded and turned away. So now, when the frustration, the grief, what I imagine must be the utter mind-numbing exhaustion of just trying to Live While Black, finally boils over, stop with the “But the violence! But the looting! What do these people want?”
This moment is not about us, but we are the ones who must listen. Think about the lived experience where strangers assume it’s OK to touch your hair. Let that reality sink in for a while. Then start learning and try to do better.