by Deanna James
I am a white woman.
My husband is a black man.
This fact, over the last 14 years of our relationship, has led me to develop a unique perspective on race relations in this country.
Let me start by saying, we are fortunate.
We, for the most part, have been surrounded by love and support as we navigate the world as an inter-racial couple raising inter-racial children. However, the experience has opened my eyes to perspectives and circumstances I am not sure I would ever have known otherwise.
I have learned things about the world and myself that I’m not sure I would have been able to hear, had I not been willing to really openly LISTEN and not be on the defensive.
As “white” people, we often hate and get defensive about the word RACISM. We want to keep the word defined by only the overt actions of the past while ignoring the legacy it has left behind.
We tend to say things such as, “I am not racist”, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”, or “I am color blind” etc. And most of the time, these sentiments are expressed with good intentions. A simple assertion of “I am not a hateful person.”
But how did you know to tell that person of color that you do not see it? Even if we did happen to exist outside of the perception of color, are we discounting some formative characteristics of each individual by ignoring their race completely?
I have heard these things from people who I know have said hurtful things to or around my husband. I’ve been witness to people trying to rob him of his identity as a “black man” because he failed to fit their idea of what one is… or should be.
What I have learned, by being more intimately exposed to those of different races, is that this “I do not see color” perspective can be very hurtful and dismissive. I know how damaging these ideas are. I know, not because they are necessarily overt, or inherently hateful, but because I know my husband. I know him well enough to see when he has been made uncomfortable. I know because I cared to know, and he cares enough to tell me.
“Black” is not all that he is, but it is something he’s always been.
You will miss him if it’s all you see, and you will miss him if you don’t see it at all.
But would I have learned these things if I had not fallen in love with him? Would I have ever given myself a reason to question my perspectives if our worlds hadn’t intertwined? Did I even fully realize they were not the same worlds in the first place?
I am not sure.
What I am sure of, is that was definitely NOT my husband’s job. It is not any person’s responsibility to explain their experience to rest of us. If we care, we will seek out other perspectives. If we do not care, we won’t.
But even having this choice comes from a place of assumed power; it comes from a place of privilege. Not one that is purposely carried, but a privilege nonetheless.
Plausible deniability. The denial of the existence of another’s experience, or at least the value in their perspective, to allow us to separate ourselves from an uncomfortable discussion.
It’s easier to just say, “That was a long time ago.” “It’s different now.”
It’s easier. But is it true? Is “easier” the point?
Now, before you go getting defensive… let me explain.
I have come to believe that everyone is “racist” to some degree. We all have prejudices, stereotypes and beliefs about people who are different from us. And often these beliefs make us, even if only covertly, put ourselves above another person.
But somewhere along the way we decided that racism means that you “hate” another group of people based on their skin color. In fact, it does not. It simply means that you hold beliefs or assumptions about a person based on their race; that you assume facts about an individual before you get to know them as an individual; and that often those assumptions, when truly analyzed, are negative if not pejorative.
Where I think we’ve lost our way is that we have convinced ourselves that we no longer believe ourselves superior based on these assumptions. But is that true, or is that still lurking there underneath? It’s an interesting question to consider as aren’t we leading into a Super Bowl where the dominant story, so far, has been the race of the Quarterback?
Its okay to see color, its okay to see difference. But it is only okay IF you take note of your internal assumptions based on color or differences and challenge those assumptions. Its important to notice assumptions, prejudices or beliefs and THEN set them aside in favor of getting to know the person in front of you. Be curious about them and their experience of life. Though color isn’t everything, it is still something. To act like it is not there is to deny a part of a person. To pretend that the person in front of you did not have a different experience in life even just partly due to their race is dismissive.
When we deny that we have assumptions and even prejudices, we remove the opportunity to be curious, to challenge these thoughts within ourselves and we deny the opportunity to grow as people. We remove the opportunity to investigate whether or not our assumptions are based on a power scale… and if we are comfortable with the answers we find.
So you want to really work to stamp out racism?
Start by accepting that racism is alive and well in this country, and in many forms.
Start by understanding that a different perspective isn’t necessarily an incorrect one.
Start by acknowledging your own prejudices against others.
Start by noticing the small assumptions you make every day as you encounter people.
And when we are confronted with a person that challenges these assumptions, let’s stop considering them to be exceptions to the rule, and realize there really are no rules.
And please, FOR THE LOVE, let’s stop being so defensive and start being curious.