If my Quaker family had had a motto, it might have been Don’t Rock the Boat. To this day, discussions about politics make me uneasy. My parents agreed on politics for the most part, but whenever the subject came up, the bickering escalated until the subject was abruptly diverted to something non-consequential. In the extremely clean rooms of our lives, a lot of energy went into keeping a smooth surface over unhappy relationships.
In many ways, we stayed afloat on an ocean of contradictions. People can be very good at that.
Which was more significant, the denial enacted between members of the same family, or the denial that didn’t recognize that liberal-minded and prejudiced really don’t belong together?
I’m still untangling those threads. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve been examining my own assumptions about race. It is, admittedly, a privilege that I made it so far without asking myself those questions.
I think it’s uncomfortable for some of the white people I know to talk about race beyond making casual remarks (within our own circles) that reflect our prior assumptions. Sometimes these remarks have a racist tinge, and sometimes they don’t, but one thing they tend not to do is break new ground in our understanding.
Why should one’s thinking about such an important topic remain static, after all?
Is is a particularly American trait that we have so little awareness of the ways our conjoined history still shapes present-day society? The immigrant ideal involved the notion of shedding your ethnic background and reinventing yourself on the road to prosperity. Sometimes I think white people expect people of color to live in the world as if slavery had never happened; as if the Jim Crow era were not a fairly recent memory; as if there had been no need for the Civil Rights Movement; as if racism didn’t still effect them. It’s quietly arrogant because it presumes that people with very different experiences should see things as we do.
The truth is, we’re all in it together. Our history is a shared history. To the extent that our future can be a shared future, and not one of mistrust and exclusion, we can diminish some of the centuries-old shadows. Let’s not wait for the other guy to change first, though, before we examine our own hidden racism.