This is my meditation in the wake of Michael Brown and the things that are happening in Ferguson and around the nation. I’ve never written this out, but I’ve thought it lots of times. Because I am white, I feel unworthy and afraid when it comes to writing about race.
But here’s the thing: I grew up with a unique perspective on race. When I was 5, my parents adopted my brother from another country. This was before adoption was a thing. While his actual nationality doesn’t matter for this conversation, the important bit is that his nationality isn’t obvious to most Americans. Some think he is African-American, others assume Pacific Islander, and others suppose him Mexican. None of them are right, but this confusion has meant that, as a family, we have experienced microcosms of different sorts of racism and prejudice.
I don’t pretend to have borne the brunt of this. That lot has fallen to my brother and to him alone. But, both through processing and grieving things that have happened to him and working through things that people have both assumed about and said to me because he is my brother, I have experienced a little more of racism than most white Americans.
I have a handful of thoughts and impressions that, looking back, formed how I think about race. At the time, though, they were no more and no less than the way a child processes the world.
I remember being fascinated by his skin and his hair. While I was pretty much the same color all over, I loved the ways his color seemed to gather some places and not others, the way his palms and the bottoms of his feet looked almost identical to mine, but then color rushed to fill the tops of his hands and feet while mine remained the same. And I loved his curly hair, loved the very unruliness my mother tried to tame, and the way it seemed almost deliberately textured where mine would fall away, like so much sand through my fingers.
I didn’t know that these thoughts were a celebration of our differences, that I was learning to marvel at the different ways we were made. And I didn’t know that most people who looked like me found these things scary, not fascinating and enticing.
My brother and I eventually learned to use the stark contrast in our appearances to mess with adults, which practice we engaged in with great joy. I took a perverse pleasure in saying, “And this is my brother,” and then watching the poor, unsuspecting adult’s eyes dart back and forth. They’d stammer something wondering which of our parents had been married before, or they’d look uncomfortable and I could see them wondering just how much of a mess the whole situation was.
In the end, I’d usually tell them the truth. I couldn’t let the awkwardness hang, the way my brother could. “He’s adopted,” I’d say, and watch relief wash through their eyes as they understood. This is not a problem I’m going to have to deal with.
I told them the truth to alleviate the awkward, but I also told them because I was proud. I loved our family story, loved that we had done something that other people didn’t even know you could do, and I wanted to share it. Back in the day, though, I think a lot of people thought it was just weird. And I don’t think they always knew how to welcome him, because on their own they’d have treated a kid who looked like him differently, but they couldn’t do that with the rest of us standing there.
I remember learning about slavery in school. One of my first memories on the topic is an udder incredulity that people actually thought that having dark skin meant someone automatically had less capability, intellectual or otherwise. I knew that wasn’t true – my own brother had dark skin and dark hair and, other than an uncanny ability to get even darker in the sun, this didn’t separate him from me. There was nothing that having light skin made me better at or worse at than him.
That preceded a deep guilt, in which I tried to claim all of the burden of that upon myself. That was when I remember how it felt wrong to be white, how I wished we hadn’t done that huge wrong (even though I hadn’t done anything).
None of this makes me an expert on race or Michael Brown or Ferguson. It doesn’t always even make me an expert at knowing my own history or understanding how my family works. But I have learned a couple of things:
1. Race doesn’t matter. Don’t take this the wrong way. I’ll be really, really mad if you take this the wrong way. Read the rest of the post, first.
Race doesn’t matter, because by itself it doesn’t change anything. Skin/hair/eye/whatever color doesn’t change a person’s abilities, doesn’t make them any more or less capable of anything. Gifts aren’t distributed along with skin color, or even with cultural understanding. Really, race could be a non-issue. Except . . .
2. Race matters a whole lot. Because we’ve decided that something that doesn’t really matters matters quite a lot, because we’ve chosen to highlight it, to treat people differently because of it, to offer opportunities based on it and make assumptions based on it, now it’s really, really important.
And it IS important. Because we have made it so. We decided that we could make judgements and decisions about people based on how they look, and we did that. The act of doing that, the act of choosing to decide how people are, based on physical characteristics that they can’t even control means that now we have to deal with the consequences of that choice.
We can’t unmake our choices. Life doesn’t work that way. And choosing something also include choosing all of the things that go along with that, whether we understand what those are when we make the choice or not. So now we need to figure out how to make race the issue (or non-issue) that it really is.
I have a few thoughts on that, too . . .
1. Know your own racism. News flash: we’re all racist. I lived in LA for a while and knew people of all different races and, guess what? They all made assumptions, mostly negative, about races that weren’t their own.
We think in generalizations. I studied Philosophy as an undergrad, and that’s how the human mind works. We don’t have the time or mental capacity to look at every individual object, person, animal that we encounter and discover how it works, so we make generalizations about different categories of things. Often, this is helpful and right. Chairs support weight. Pizza is yummy. Books are fascinating. If we had to try out every chair, to examine the construction materials and workmanship that went into making it before we could sit on it, we’d be exhausted and get sucked into tedium.
Sometimes, though, this goes wrong. A child who gets bitten by a dog may decide that all dogs bite. Another, who assumes that all adults are helpful, might get themselves into a dangerous situation.
I think it’s easy for us to make these generalizations based on race because we are highly visual people and race is something we see.
Even I, with my brother and my background, find myself making assumptions based on race. Some of these are positive, but most are negative. Also because of my brother and my background, I tend to catch these and think, “No, that can’t be true,” because I know – I KNOW – someone for whom it isn’t true.
That catching ourselves, that seeing what we’re doing and stopping ourselves, that’s key to helping us stop acting on these assumptions. But we can’t do that, can’t stop and catch ourselves, without first knowing that we’re making these assumptions and accepting that doing so is probably simply a function of the way our brains work.
I don’t think that making assumptions about people based on how they look is good, especially when they are negative assumptions but, knowing what I know about how the human mind works, I don’t see a way around having them (especially when they’re part of our culture, too – though they will be less and less a part of culture as we catch them and choose to act differently), but we can stop acting on them.
2. Celebrate differences. We, especially those of us who are white, live in a world where we strive to be colorblind. Our goal, it seems, is to simply not notice race, to treat everyone the same.
What if, instead, we celebrated racial differences?
I was barely 5 when we adopted my brother, and even then I knew: we were different. And I loved the ways we were different. I loved his skin and his hair and his eyes, and the way he spoke baby Spanish instead of English.
What if we could marvel at each other? What if the “other” wasn’t scary, but instead drew us in? What if we could find each other fascinating and let our differences draw us together, in mutual friendship and exploration, rather than letting them tear us apart?
We’re not going to stop noticing race. We just aren’t. And I don’t think we’re meant to. But what if we wanted to know each other, what if we made the effort to reach out and make friends and ask questions, rather than separating ourselves as soon as we notice something different?
I think this fascination with each other might be our natural state. I think we are made to be interested in each other, to get to know each other. But we’ve got all this junk in the way, because we’re afraid that being known will mean being hurt, that our desire to know will be taken the wrong way, or that no one really wants to know us and it’s all a farce in the end.
If we celebrated each other, celebrated the vibrancy that cultural and racial differences bring to our world, then maybe we’d be less likely to distrust each other, less likely to shoot.
3. Make the problem your own. I don’t care about Ferguson first and foremost as a racial issue. I don’t grieve primarily because, once again, we let the differences between us end someone’s life.
I care, and I grieve, because I know that next time it could be my brother.
I’ve already seen him named a thug and a bully in a middle school debacle, even when he claimed a different story. (The school changed their tune when my (very white and known as an educational volunteer) mother showed up to discuss the situation.) And I’ve heard how he was pulled over for a dubious traffic stop in the deep south, then pulled out of his car and searched because of the color of his skin.
And I know how he his, how he says the funniest things, how he is a master of snark, and how he’s likely to be that way at the wrong times.
And I know . . . I know that if the wrong set of circumstances came together, they would shoot him.
I care because the problem is my own.
There are a million white people who care about the events of Ferguson, a million who see the sin and want it to stop. And that is good. It’s so, so good.
But there’s a whole different level of caring when you know it could touch you. When it could hit you at home. When the problem is yours, it means something different to care and to want change.
We won’t care in a way that motivates us toward change from the inside out until the problem is our own. We won’t care until these are our friends and our neighbors who might get shot, until we know people because we’ve had them in our homes and been in theirs, until they are the ones we call when the world falls apart or maybe when we just need a friend and a latte.
It’s hard to expand our circles. There’s (often justified) fear and insecurity on all sides. But we have to do it. Because when the people most likely to be pressed down or killed are people we love with all our hearts, then we will change. We can change. We must change. And we won’t do it until the problem is our own.