Race dominates the American mind. Even when we aren’t thinking about it, we are living every day in a steeply racialized nation. Not to think about race in America is the privilege of someone who lives and moves in the majority. I argue that, in this way, we are thinking about it even when we are not.
I consciously think about race very day. I grew up in a racialist household. Sure, we were Northerners. We considered ourselves above the debates and arguments about race in the 1960s. At the same time, my parents were wary of Black Americans—as well as immigrants, brown people, gays and lesbians, and liberated women.
I remember having this superior outlook when I was a kid. I had to learn it and it violated something fundamental in me. I took up the language of the people around me. Their mannerisms, jokes, and thoughts about Black Americans seeped into my brain and my life. I became a product of my time, in part, because we lived separate and distinct from Black Americans. We had no Black friends. We had no friends who were gay or brown or immigrant.
It’s easy, in this environment, to absorb without thinking much, the mindset of those around us. It takes a significant event or learning experience—however long or short—to change the direction of a mind’s development. I realize now that I participated willingly in the kinds of discrimination and racial animus occurring everywhere in our corner of the American Dream.
A white school. A white neighborhood. A white cadre of friends. A white family. This can be a halcyon sort of existence. We weren’t exactly poor but we weren’t well off. My family saw itself as the top of the racial heap, however. There was nothing to compare it to. Or, rather, we compared ourselves to those the darker races in the news and in the media. Black came to mean highly sexualized criminality. “They” were a threat to all we held dear.
In high school, I embarked on a long and painful journey that led me back to the child I was before I absorbed all the myths and lies about race. An empathetic and sensitive person, I could not long carry the burden of racial hostility. My first job was in a Black restaurant where, for a while, I was the only white employee. I foundered on the enormity of my ignorance. My relationship capabilities were immature, at best. But faced with being white in a Black environment I learned a great deal.
The first thing, or course, is that Black Americans have all the personality and complication of everyone else. I could not reduce my coworkers, bosses, or their friends, family, and acquaintances to easily thumbed stereotypes. I found myself dealing with human beings, filled with just as many desires and dreams and feelings as I had.
I also found myself welcomed into this environment in a way that I knew Black Americans weren’t accepted or welcomed into my white community. This set me to contemplation about the fairness of our racial situations on my edge of the world. From a young age, I had a well-developed sense of fairness. What is good for me is good for you. What is bad for me is bad for you. Everyone ought to be treated the same way in same situations. Finding myself welcomed into an all-Black world challenged the racial stereotypes and tropes that I grew up with.
This is not to say I became racially enlightened. But it was a start on the path to seek that enlightenment. I still had a long way to go to understand that by the fact of my whiteness I had an advantage in the world that my Black contemporaries did not. In my later development, I lived and worked and scooted by in life in a way many would judge as lazy or lacking motivation. Had I been Black, my slovenly lifestyle, my approach to living paycheck-to-paycheck would have been much differently interpreted. My white contemporaries, people like my parents and family, would have marked up my loafing to the fact of my being Black. That made me think a lot about the fact that I could get by, I could do half-work, I could be unclear and fuzzy in my thinking because I was white.
Working in that Black restaurant showed me what it was like to be reminded of my race every day. I believe that race is a social construct that has very real consequences in the world. But before I went into that restaurant and worked with Black Kansas Citians, I never, not once, thought of myself as white. I didn’t have to. I was the majority in a white majority world. Now, the people around me, by the fact of their Blackness, challenged me. But, as I have said, I was not treated as less than or greater than. I was a person laboring away, making a living just like everyone else.
The lessons continued on. I came to believe the principles of honesty and fairness are foundational. They are the two human virtues on which every other virtue is based. Without these, I cannot be loyal. I cannot be true to myself or my compatriots. I cannot be who I am without the sting of guilt and shame when I violate these two principles. I have to be fair and honest. If I cannot, I am nothing.
In this light, I have to admit I don’t know what it is to be Black in America. I have a notion. I can empathize. But the reality of being reminded at all times I am Black is something I can only imagine, and then only imperfectly.
Just today, I had breakfast with a friend who is Black. In our talk, he reminded me just how free I am as a white American. I can go where I want, when I want. I desire to take him places and show him things. But he doesn’t feel the same comfort or freedom of movement I do. Can I imagine I can protect him in in the central Missouri backwoods should we confront the very real presence of racism? Can I expect he will enjoy the wide-open spaces of the American prairies without fear? Can I take him to a place where he will not be reminded of his Blackness? To think so shows me my privilege once again.