You guys are some of the most mature readers in the blogosphere, I think. So I think we can handle touching on the sensitive subject of race. I pray this doesn’t offend, but if it does, it does so for all the right reasons.
I was born in a city where the population was greater than 97% white people. I went to junior high and high school in a city that was more than 90% white. I currently live in the most racially diverse town in Wyoming, and it is still 90% white.
I grew up in an upper middle class white family. I am white. I’ve been surrounded by white people my entire life. I am probably not the best person to talk about issues of race. But maybe if we get a small conversation going here, other people might realize it’s okay to talk about race. In real ways, not in self-censored, half-frightened, hushed tones.
When it comes to talking about race, I’m really torn. Part of me agrees with one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman, who five years ago famously said, “How are we going to get rid of racism? Stop talking about it.” But there’s another part of me who loves things like the movie Crash and the feelings and emotions they stir up simply because they bring things like race to the surface and force people to deal with the awkward discomfort it carries with it.
It seems that race conversations in America are generally driven by one of two things: white guilt and political correctness. (And one is probably related to the other.) These two things make it nearly impossible to have a real conversation about race.
Stop Talking About It
Let’s say we follow Morgan Freeman’s advice. I think it’s pretty wise in a lot of ways, and here’s an example why: my three year old son.
One of Eli’s best friends was adopted from Africa and happens to be black. (Quite literally, an African-American.) We have never told Eli his friend is black or talked to Eli about him being a different skin color.
And you know what? Eli’s never noticed and never asked.
To Eli, he is just another three year old boy who is his friend. And that, to me, is beautiful. Why in the world would I want to ruin that innocence by pointing out his skin color?
But some kids in that same age group have noticed. Some kids have said mean things about his skin color. And it makes me wonder: who pointed it out to them? Did somebody tell them a “black boy” was going to be in their class? Did a well-meaning parent tell them to be nice to the new “black kid”?
Who opened their eyes to the fact that he was somehow “different” than they were?
This is what I love about Morgan Freeman’s stance: people are just people. If you want to live in a colorblind world, it seems to me we should start treating people like their color honestly doesn’t matter.
Instead of having a classroom where we see black children and white children and brown children, let’s just see children. Instead of labeling someone as a “black CEO” or a “Hispanic coach”, let’s let them be a CEO or a coach.
If we’d stop pointing out our differences in the name of equality, we might find we focus less on those differences and more on the equality.
That’s why I tend to believe things like “Black History Month” in schools or the “Rooney Rule” in the NFL are silly inventions by people who are riddled with their own guilt and want to transfer that weight to someone else. Again, I agree with Morgan Freeman and a slew of other activists on this point: important historical figures who happened to be black should be covered every month in history class. Limiting it to students writing essays about peanut butter every February diminishes, rather than exalts, the important role black people played in American history.
The Rooney Rule seems even sillier to me. The NFL instituted a rule seven years ago that teams must interview at least one black candidate for head coaching opportunities. This has led to a slew of token sham interviews with minority candidates who were never actually considered for the job, just to fulfill the requirements. Time, money, and resources are wasted, and once again the focus is on race.
Didn’t Martin Luther King, Jr advocate for judging someone by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? Who cares what color an NFL coach is? When the Colts played the Bears in the Superbowl a few years back, all the pundits were so excited because the game was guaranteed to give us the first black coach with a Superbowl ring. But honestly, why should we care about that? If Morgan Freeman is right, shouldn’t we just celebrate the fact that these two men were great football coaches, instead of great black football coaches?
Should we celebrate when a Hispanic justice gets nominated to the Supreme Court? Shouldn’t we follow Martin Luther King Jr’s example and judge them by the content of their character instead?
Talking about color all the time in the name of equality makes it more and more difficult to become a truly equal and colorblind society. I am not a German-American or a Norwegian-American or any other kind of hyphenated American. I am simply an American. On some level, I don’t understand the need for people to describe themselves in hyphenated ways. Just be an American. My race does not define who I am, and I think that is why I want to like Morgan Freeman’s advice.
No, Let’s Talk About It
On the other hand, my race does define who I am in subtle but very real ways. Because I am white, as much as I hate it and do not want it to be true, I do have opportunities other people do not have. And so your race, if you are black or Hispanic or Asian or whatever, defines who you are at some level, too. It might simply be impossible to ignore that.
There is a history of racism in this country, and so we do celebrate when Barack Obama gets elected President. Not because he’s a good President (more than half the country has woken up to the fact that he’s not), but because of what it means symbolically to this country.
Does celebrating this give a nod of ascent to white guilt? Probably. I’d like to think systemic racism does not exist in America any longer. I think that’s fairly accurate. But then again, I’m living my white life in my 90% white world. What do I know about systemic racism?
Do cops really stop black or brown people more than white people? I don’t know. Statistics can be made to say all sorts of things, and everyone’s got personal anecdotes that don’t mean anything in the context of larger trends. There are more black and brown people in jail than white people, but is that because of racism, or just the bum luck that the folks in jail are the ones who committed crimes? I find it difficult to believe there’s a systemic, racist policy in place where cops or courts consistently let someone go because they’re white.
50 years ago? Sure. Today? Not so much.
But maybe the economic systems we have in place lead to those trends. Maybe the lack of opportunities in inner cities lead to those trends. Maybe there is something unintentionally systemic that creates a non-level playing field.
There was a reason Black History Month was started: the history of blacks in America had been ignored. There was a reason the Rooney Rule was instituted in the NFL: minority candidates were being passed over for top positions.
As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is a place in our society for things like those.
But maybe only as a starting point… because schools having Black History Month is like Christians having a “quiet time.” You start to feel like the only place you can meet God is during a structured, 10 minute time in the mornings. You lose sight of the fact you can meet and talk to God anywhere, anytime. A quiet time is a fragmented, rather than a holistic, approach to spiritual life. But if you aren’t hanging out with God at all, you need someplace to start and maybe a “quiet time” can give you a kick start in that direction.
So having a quiet time should never be an end goal; rather, it should be the means to an end.
Likewise, we shouldn’t applaud ourselves for having Black History Month. Hopefully we can (and maybe we have?) move past the need for it as we integrate a more holistic teaching of history.
So maybe Morgan Freeman is wrong. Maybe we do need to talk about it. At least for a little while longer.
One of the reasons I love the movie Crash so much is because it forces us to look at racism in shades of gray, rather than black-and-white (pun intended). The question, “Are you a racist?” is the wrong question to ask. One of the purposes of the movie is to show that everyone, at some level, has to deal with some ugly racial tensions within themselves.
Living here in Wyoming, I don’t have to deal with that too often. Part of me is really sad about that. I wonder how I would react in a city like Los Angeles.
But maybe Crash displays exactly why we do need to talk about race. We’ve got a lot of history together as black people and white people and brown people. Maybe eventually, sometime in the future when the world is redeemed a little more, we will be at a place where we can stop talking about it. Until then, maybe we’ve got a lot of conversations to have so we can understand one another better.
Let’s trade stories, rather than cheap political insults, to get there. Let’s share our heritages and histories instead of hurling barbs at each other. And maybe, just maybe, there will come a time when we can just be the people God created us to be.