Is the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing the beginning of a lasting tide or a mere moment in time.
Hordes of white people suddenly want to learn all they can about black America. They seek a way past the turbulent weeks since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Four men, the officer who put his knee on Floyd’s neck as he asphyxiated and those who stood by as Floyd pleaded for his life, have been charged.
Now, white America is seeking absolution. Many, no doubt, wish to rid themselves of any sense of white guilt, of being viewed as complicit in the horrors of racism. Others desire the designation of being an ally to people of color, or better yet, to be an anti-racist. If you don’t know what that means, don’t fret. There are a growing number of resources available. Handy “to-do” lists, books to read, guidelines to follow, search results for questions like “am I racist?” It’s like a national read-in of a CliffsNotes version of the last 400 years.
It’s all good, a starting place, albeit a very early beginning that took a long time to come.
Even Merriam-Webster is getting schooled. Keepers of the authoritative and tony reference admit that they need to expand the definition of racism.
It’s an important step. Because the inadequacies within the version that Webster uses now illustrate a common misunderstanding. One that often cascades into deeper problems that so many white people hope to avoid going forward.
Webster uses a shorthand definition for racism, one that merely skims the true weight of the term:
“a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Their mea culpa of verbiage came about through the advocacy of Kennedy Mitchum, a 22-year-old graduate of Drake University in Iowa. Mitchum, of Missouri, challenged the definition because it failed to note the deep ramifications of systemic racism.
Merriam-Webster’s keepers agreed with her.
People of all races have a tendency to conflate bias, prejudice and racism; as if the terms mean the same thing. But they’re actually not interchangeable.
Racism is about power and money, it’s what someone does with their bias, which we all hold. (And no, you can’t be color-blind, no one is.) Prejudice, when leveraged, can cause great economic harm. And because over the centuries it has been allowed to grind into every aspect of life in America, we’ve created systems — educational, governmental, civic and social — that are often inherently harmful or less accessible to some, and more beneficial to others.
That’s systemic racism. And very good people can and do exist within these systems.
It’s stunning how many white people cling to a version of the civil rights movement and current struggles as being all about black/white integration. It’s a stand that manages to center around them.
Get this part straight: The legal victories that desegregated America were mere steps, necessary shifts on the path toward the broader dream of economic equality. The goal in Martin Luther King Jr.’s day and now was/is equity, not to simply be “with” white people. Missing that point has encouraged all sorts of failed remedies — including a muddled grasp of what is meant by racism as opposed to bias.
Finally, here is another piece to reflect on: Where have you been, white America? Why did it take the widely disseminated video of a black man dying over the allegation that he’d passed a fake $20 bill to bring you to the table?
If people honestly answer that query, and strive to do better, they’ll find some of the solace they seek.
But no doubt, many of the people furiously speed reading or absorbing podcasts about race want just enough cred to sidestep any verbal mishaps, any gaffes where they might find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not knowing the “right” things to say. No one likes being called out, or worse, being labeled a racist.
But really, that’s the point. To make any real progress, it’s going to be uncomfortable, America. So let’s settle in.