Continuing the Conversation on White Privilege, Part Two
A veteran activist, wizened and white, recently gave me this advice:
I used to think I needed to understand how black people suffer from racism. I thought, if it’s really that bad, then explain it to me — when it happens, how it works. But then someone asked why it matters what I understand… the truth is, it doesn’t. Feeling that we’re entitled to an explanation is a facet of white privilege. When black people talk about racism, you just need to believe them!
The Separate Obligations of Belief and Understanding
Among my various privileges is a college education, and I was raised a skeptic. I am trained to question, challenge, and demand proof. While excessive police violence, mass incarceration, and similarly overt outlets of racism make ready talking points, its more daily and permeating elements can be less obvious for a white person to identify and describe. Such a comprehensive experience must be anecdotal; by nature it is “just a story.”
But among the few requirements of Humanism is faith in humanity. To be an Ethical Culturist, I must believe that an entire demographic is not lying. To fight everyday racism, I must fight the instinct that I am owed incontestable proof of its existence.
Of course, educating ourselves on those less obvious aspects is just as necessary as trusting our fellow humans, and understanding any societal problem is a vital step to solving it. To that end, and although there is no dearth of good literature on this vast issue, I offer two engaging, accessible books in particular: Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism by Patricia Hill Collins and The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America, by Jacob Levenson, both published in 2005.
The Tools of Racism and Two Short Book Reviews
Since few people experience both paradigms and also wield a public voice, the dramatic difference between them has gone largely undiscussed for centuries. When it is acknowledged, it is often confused with general, mainstream (i.e. white) sexism, which is again different. Collins uses accessible and mostly familiar examples in a cursory overview of racism against Black Americans from this intersectional perspective. It is an enlightening read, and tackles questions that are rarely asked in the public forum, such as how the different gender roles in black and white American cultures cyclically reinforce the segregation between those two cultures, and why the massive differences between the stereotypes and expectations of “ladies” and “Black ladies” are both fundamental and infrequently voiced.
This silencing is marginalization, and it is exactly the point. When stories are told in America, about Americans, Black Americans are rarely the protagonists. I’ve heard it commented that “racism is all over the news” lately. But we still don’t hear about it enough, at enough times or from enough perspectives. Racism is not a separate topic from medicine, sexism, or anything else, but a systematic, foundational erasing of people and their voices and stories. The problem is far from simple, but solving it must begin with seeking out and hearing other people’s stories.