Race, Perspectives, and Celebration of Differences
“Life is short; therefore I shall be a crusader in the fight against ignorance and fear, beginning with myself.”
Those that went to the same elementary school I did know those words are authored by Dorothy Vickers-Shelley. We didn’t know her as a community or social/civil rights activist. We knew her as our school librarian. Every single class visit to the library, each year, kindergarten through fifth grade, without fail, we recited those words to officially begin the library session. Of course, as children, we didn’t fully understand the significance of those words or know that so many of us would eventually take them to heart as part of our life mottos. Now looking back, it seems like we all should want to aspire to live up to that seed planted within us so long ago, to watch it continuously blossom and grow. And yet I sit here now watching the country attempt to pull itself apart at the seams, thinking that although these words are as true now as they ever were, there are multiple facets of interpretation and it all comes down to, in my opinion, acceptance. Acceptance of people for who they are and acceptance of the fact that people will have different perspectives based on their unique culture and individual history. Once true acceptance is achieved, it’s easier to discuss the bigger issues that arise from the differing perspectives so that changes can be made effectively where needed. It’s also easier to recognize that sometimes those differing perspectives come from within our own cultures.
It’s also important to remember that many of these differing perspectives transfer into the political arena, where dissension tends to add fuel to the fires of already existing conflicts such as racism. While fires are raging, friendships are being torn apart. We can see evidence of that every day. To make things worse, horrific injustices keep happening and we all get to watch it play out on national media as well as social media. This has become so much bigger than one man’s murder at the hands of the police and bigger than other black men and women who have lost their lives due to police action. It’s even bigger than America as it spreads worldwide.
Social media posts are going up that read “kindly unfriend me if you disagree with [insert stance here] or if you don’t support [insert cause or political opinion here]” rather than actively discussing the differences. There’s even one meme going around that says something like “we can have different opinions on sports teams, foods, and music. . .but we cannot have different opinions about human rights.” At face value, that’s a legitimate statement. We all want friends who share the same values we have. Except that when it comes to race, how often do you hear anyone say that racism does not exist or that human rights don’t matter? Most people acknowledge these things to be true. So then what are you really divided about and is that chasm as wide as you think it is? Is there room to meet somewhere in the middle when everyone agrees that justice should be fair and equal?
Protestors vs Rioters
It seemingly started with the death of George Floyd, but that was just the breaking point. Perhaps it was partially the result of being cooped up away from a virus, but emotions were boiling. One person’s death erupted into a cry for change heard around the world. Years of minorities feeling like they have been and are still treated as less than equal, particularly in the eyes of the law, became the focus of attention. Protestors came out despite the risk to their health and demanded to be seen and listened to.
Unfortunately, so did the rioters and looters. This also sparked outrage and indignation. Some people defended the rioters and looters as justified, forgetting that they were destroying the very communities we all live in. Destroying the economy of these communities where Covid- 19 was already nearly crippling some businesses. Forgetting that two wrongs do not equal a right or justifying the support of the behavior with cognitive dissonance. However, there is always at least one positive if one chooses to see it. One of the good things to come of this particular controversy is that those who did not already know, especially the children, learned through discussions that Americans have a First Amendment right to peacefully protest and that there is a difference between peaceful protesting for change and rioting. One thing even the politicians agreed upon was the right to protest. And children are learning that wounds from the past are still healing.
Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter movement has been a contentious one from the start. Looking from two entirely different perspectives, it’s easy to see why that is the case. The picture of the child above states one side of the issue better than anyone in an emotional state of mind ever could, as does the picture below. To many who support the movement, it is not meant to belittle anyone else’s’ life or to say that black lives are more important than anyone else’s. It’s meant to raise awareness of a particular problem.
On the other hand, it isn’t that hard to see why people also take offense to the saying. Other minorities are struggling to be heard as well, and people are watching cops become the target of hate crimes. Those saying all lives matter are not claiming that black lives do not matter. They see it more as a call toward equality and inclusion for everyone. Because from a different perspective, particularly when speaking about more than racial injustices (both perceived and real), black lives matter appears to be exclusive and when it first began, the movement itself was thought to be encouraging hate for cops.
But when it comes to being exclusive, one might say the same thing about “back the blue” statements. When emotions are high, the pressure is on to choose sides. Us or them. Suddenly, the entire police force becomes the target of hate crimes. Many of them recognize that they are part of a larger problem and they too want to look for positive solutions and change. What about your family and friends of all races who are proud to be doing what they can to protect and serve their community? Some people in a position of power are corrupt, no doubt, but your family and friends want to do their jobs to the best of their ability, including making changes where changes are needed. They need the support of the citizens in their communities in order to be most effective.
White Privilege, White Culture, and Racial Profiling
Many whites, most especially, poverty-stricken whites and lower-middle-class whites do not see themselves as privileged. They work and suffer the same as any other person trying to keep their heads above the water. They understand as well as anyone else relying on government assistance how easily that system can keep a person down rather than help them up. They understand what it is like to be looked down on for being poor, like they must be in that predicament because they have some frivolous and unhealthy vice or because they don’t want to work. They know what it is like to be watched more closely for appearing suspicious. From their perspective, the reason for the disproportionate members of minorities relying on public assistance and for the disproportionate amount of minorities living in poverty has nothing to do with any kind of privilege. In reality, it’s more complex than any single reason, but it’s hard to see beyond your immediate needs when in a situation like that. In that context, it is offensive to be told they are being treated better because of their skin tone.
Additionally, if part of white privilege was originally defined as having more products readily available in stores or seeing mostly white people in films or on television, does that still apply as much today when major efforts have been made to show more diversity on screen and in advertisements? When major efforts are being made to be more inclusive where and when appropriate? In stores targeting specific customer types, for instance, will intentionally cater to their target consumers. How about this: is it a privilege to be less likely to do as much time for drug offenses or for being less likely to be pulled over while driving and be intensely questioned? The first part of the statement is more in tune with the general consensus of what white privilege is, but the latter part is racial profiling. While racial profiling is generally not a good thing, it is different than white privilege.
Similarly, white culture may lead to white ignorance about other cultures, but it is not the same thing as white privilege. It would be so much easier to find middle ground if people recognized the difference between these ideas. It is possible for all races to have ignorance about another race or culture. After all, we tend to know our own cultures the best. It's what we are typically raised around. That does not mean people should not try to educate themselves about other cultures or that people should not try to understand them, but it does mean that people should stop labeling ignorance as white privilege.
White ignorance is not white privilege. Racial profiling is not white privilege. Many things society is trying to lump into the white privilege category are not white privilege. In order to correct the injustices and inequalities happening in today's society, it is important to distinguish between what is and is not white privilege on the most basic level.
When Is Something Offensive
Some things are understood as automatically offensive. However, it can be hard to know when something is going to offend someone else, particularly when something might offend one person of a certain culture and not another person from that culture. For instance, there is some controversy over using a reaction meme on social media depicting someone from a race other than your own. It’s been referred to as digital blackface. There are quite a few people who are horrified and greatly offended by this and there are others who think that goes too far because a reaction meme is just a reaction. Anyone can have that reaction and if inclusivity is the goal, what does it matter which race depicts a particular reaction in a meme? And yet the controversy over it seems to exist.
On a different note, why is it sometimes okay to say things like “he’s too white” or that’s a “white thing to do” and not offensive other times? Why is there ever an issue with a black person who has adopted some “white” points of view? Why is there ever a problem with a white person who has adopted some black cultural habits? Aren’t people just people? We want to fit in with our friends as much as we want to stand out as individuals. These are just some examples. There are many more instances of people being critical about cultural appropriation and other racial differences. But is it necessary to jump to a quick position of defense, to immediately assume something is meant to be racist or offensive?
A Personal Story
When I was a cashier we had to follow a price matching program. The rules varied from store to store because certain parts of the policies were left up to individual store managers. In our case, certain items couldn’t be matched and certain stores were excluded. There was also a specific radius and any store outside the radius was excluded. Unfortunately, this meant that Hispanic supermarkets did not qualify for the price matches. We had to be careful not to say something like “we can’t match Hispanic supermarkets” because it sounded as if we were excluding those stores because they were Hispanic, which wasn’t the case. So we had to be sure to watch our wording by specifically stating that only stores within a certain radius qualified.
There were some other rules and guidelines that we had to follow. The regulars knew them well, but there were always people who tried to scam the system and get by matching things they should not have been able to match. Items from stores we weren’t supposed to match or items from expired ads. The list of cheating attempts goes on. One day a Hispanic woman was turned away from at least one other cashier for something she was attempting to price match. So she got in my line behind a nice elderly lady who also happened to be price matching according to the rules.
While I was busy ringing up the lady in front of the Hispanic woman, two separate customer service managers came to alert me not to price match for the Hispanic lady. So, of course, I followed what I was told so that I didn’t get in trouble and so that she didn’t get to cheat the store out of money. I’m sure that this lady had been told why she couldn’t match what she was trying to match, probably on more than one occasion than just that particular day. However, she had the nerve to loudly accuse me of being racist against her because I matched the person in front of her. I explained to her whatever the problem was with her particular ads, but she continued to insist I was doing it because of her race.
I knew in my heart and in my head that simply was not the case, even if my managers hadn't warned me to watch out for her cunningness in advance. I also knew I hadn’t said anything to her that would sound as if the reason was racial. I suddenly became so emotional that I was fighting back tears, while trying to keep my composure. To be accused of something so hurtful and untrue in such a humiliating way was more than I could process on the spot even though I had to remain as professional as possible. She changed her tone when she saw my reaction, but it should not have happened in the first place. What was I supposed to say? My cousins are half Hispanic, too, and that’s a horrible thing to say to me? My boss isn’t white either? Good, you should feel bad for assuming what you did? Or maybe, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for trying that ploy to cheat the system? I couldn’t say any of that. I could only regain the composure I didn’t normally lose over customer confrontations.
Color Blindness vs Color Celebration
Statements like “I don’t see color” when talking about how individuals treat people are now being discouraged. But as with other things mentioned, there are differing perspectives. In one sense, we should treat everyone with the same kind of respect regardless of race, hence figuratively not seeing color. However, in a literal sense and figuratively, the reality is that no one is completely colorblind. We all have our biases and our natural preferences. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend that isn’t so. We can, however, strive toward understanding and acceptance.
It’s true that children aren’t born with hate in their hearts. That’s a learned behavior, whether it be hate for a particular race or hate for the law and cops. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all maintain a childlike heart of acceptance and literal awe over cultural differences and the differences in our appearances? To me, that’s what it means to fight ignorance by beginning with myself. I want to celebrate the differences between myself and my friends as much as I want to take delight in the things we share. Those are the things true friendship is made of: common decency, kindness, shared values, and respect for one another. Fighting ignorance doesn’t always mean being out on the frontlines as an activist; it can also mean keeping your heart and mind open so that changes can be made where needed. None of us should be ashamed of who we are or of our skin color. We should ALL be willing to learn from one another. If only once in a while, lay aside preconceived notions and biases long enough to really hear another’s point of view. Try to imagine what it might be like on the other side. Take that newfound mutual understanding and walk forward together, making change.
© 2020 Shannon Henry