To the (Probably White) Person Who Says It Shouldn’t Be About Race

 

So, in light of the Michael Dunn verdicts — several guilty counts of attempted murder, but a hung jury on the count of murder in the first degree — there is a resurgence of conversation on social media about the ways in which the criminal justice systems, particularly in the state of Florida, are heavily biased against young Black men.

In particular, I’ve seen scores of Black people lamenting this disparity, usually with some emotional combination of sadness, anger, or, most common, a detached bitter sense of resignation.

And in response, when discussing the particulars of the case, I’ve seen several White people say things like, “well I just don’t think it should be about race,” or “skin color has nothing to do with it,” or something along those lines. It’s not that they’re defending Michael Dunn’s (or before him, George Zimmerman’s) actions, but they’re saying “it’s just a tragic situation, period, and race shouldn’t factor into it.”

Like this guy, for example.

 

It always hurts for me to read or hear comments that. Every. Single. Time.

You know why? Here’s why.

Because in principle I agree with you, but that ship sailed a long time ago.

Like, literally. Centuries ago, ships carrying African slaves to this continent started a foundation of forced labor and systemic disenfranchisement, and ever since, people with brown skin and a cultural connection to the African-American experience, no matter how tenuous, have faced an uphill struggle to receive the same benefits and fair treatment as whites.

I know that’s not exactly newsbut when you say you don’t want to talk about race, you are, intentionally or not, implying that this history is irrelevant to the current state of affairs. This is not only logically inconsistent, but from my vantage point, personally offensive. Not that I feel offended every single time… usually, I’m able to brush it off, because I get that it’s not being said with malicious intent.

rafiki011
If I’m Simba, I’m like, “when I become king, we’re gonna talk about this whole hitting-me-in-the-head-to-make-a-point thing.”

But it’s still painful. It’s a microaggression that I choose not to respond to most of the time, because it’s usually said by someone with whom I don’t share a particularly close relationship, and sometimes it’s not worth the time and effort to sort through these things.

But I’m writing this now just to give you, my unspecified but more-than-hypothetical mutual White friend, a bit of insight regarding how this comment might look to someone on the other side of this particular privilege axis.

When you say or type, “Why do we have to make this about race,” this is what we read or hear:

Why are you bringing up this confusing and painful situation? I don’t mind talking about current events, but you’re bringing up an area where I feel like I’m at a disadvantage as a White person, and rather than take the time to deal with whatever layer of privilege I may walk in, I’d much prefer to skirt the issue altogether and protect the illusion I’ve been harboring that my accomplishments are all solely the result of my hard work. So stop talking about race, because it makes me uncomfortable.

I’m sure you don’t mean to say all of that, but that’s how it can come across.

You know what makes me uncomfortable? The idea that I might get shot at a gas station if I’m listening to Lecrae, Trip Lee, or any other artist that sounds like someone else’s idea of “thug music.” (By the way, those artists are Christians. They are not thugs, by any stretch of a definition. But you won’t know that if you don’t actually pay attention to what’s being said in the music.)

When we’re talking about a systemic racial bias that subtly provides a veneer of legal justification for the targeting — not just figurative, but actual, literal targeting — of young Black males by gun-carrying White people, and you say, “let’s not bring race into this,” what you’re unintentionally declaring is that your desire to be comfortable in the conversation is more important than our desire to not get shot.

Again… you might not be trying to be say this, but that’s how it can come across.

So perhaps there are different phrases you could use to communicate the sentiment you’re going for? Perhaps you could try this one on:

It saddens me that there is still so much racial division in this country, and I wish things were different.

See? I can TOTALLY give an amen and a high-five to that. Feel free to copy-and-paste that one into your Facebook conversations, whenever you feel the urge to say that race shouldn’t be in the conversation.

Or, if you want to go with a lighter touch, feel free to use Seinfeld’s “look to the cookie.”

That is all.

  1. Just remember, when we look to the cookie, we must also endure the ensuing intestinal discomfort. 😉

    I also completely agree that the state of the racial divide in America is saddening.

    Part of the problem with the cases coming from Flordia is that Florida specifically, explicitly, allows for this to happen. In the vast majority of states, what Zimmerman and Dunn did would be murder. There wouldn’t even be a viable defense. In Florida, however, the ridiculous “stand your ground,” laws make for a not only viable, but incredibly difficult to defeat, defense in such cases. This has had horrible consequences for people of all races in Florida. Violent people can basically kill other people, and say, “I felt threatened,” and get away with it. And it has worked the vast majority of the time.

    The situations in Florida represent not only a failure of justice and a reminder of the racial healing that is still elusive in America, but also the foundation upon which it rests– lack of respect for human dignity and life.

  2. thankx for this post Jelani. it said what needed to be said incredibly well and sadly the likelihood is that once again the choir will be the ones high fiving and passing it around – but there is always the hope that someone who thinks like that will pause for a moment and ‘get’ it.

    i am one of those white okes. an african american in the sense that i was born and raised in South Africa and am now currently living and working with a non-profit in America [Philly and now Oakland] but that’s as far as that goes.

    and what i can say is, It saddens me that there is still so much racial division in this country [and sadly, in my own where our similiar response to this kind of thing would be “but we dealt with apartheid years ago – it’s all finished now” – yes and very much no!] and I wish things were different.

    i have followed the Trayvon Martin/Zimmerman case and others and i have listened to my buddy Nate who works in Oakland with a bunch of young African American guys of the greatest class and style who have been harrassed in similiar ways simply because of the colour of their skin and some of their stories have been heartbreaking.

    what i loved about your response/post was the humility and grace as often that is lost in the anger [probably quite justified in terms of you having to hear another white person get it so horribly wrong again!] and then pushes people away from hearing but i found this piece so invitational and hopeful and even gave us a line we could use in future postings.

    much strength to you
    love brett fish

    and as much as you need all the help you can get being a black person in the current national situation and context so we who are aware of the issue and are trying to be educated on it need so much help in terms of knowing how best we can respond and become a larger part of the solution so please keep on informing us…

  3. Hi Jelani,

    As a white man trying to do justice, love mercy, and humbly walk with God in this complex (and often confusing) journey of racial reconciliation I want to just say thank you. This post is beyond generous. Helpful, kind, honest. I don’t know you personally, but I’m glad to be in it with you.

  4. Hi Jelani,
    Man oh man am I with you… I may seem like an unlikely spokesperson, but if there’s one thing I learned getting my counseling degree is that us white folks will go to any length to avoid the realization that we all have some subconscious racism. As desperately as we’d like to believe that race is not a factor in our lives, that’s simply not true… and being able to recognize blind spots and acknowledge the inherent privilege of being a white person in America is the first part of this discussion. And sadly… many of us aren’t willing to point the finger inwards and even start the conversation. Thank you for this.
    Charlotte

  5. Jelani, thank you. I have shared this post on my FB page and both black and white folks I know thank you for writing it. The good thing is that there are people on all sides who want this dialogue, and who are willing to hear honesty on both sides.

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