January 23, 2016

Even Band-Aids are White

“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” -Will McAvoy (Newsroom)

A friend of mine recently shared this photo on Facebook, but it summarizes the attitude of a lot of people right now:

It made me really sad and I wanted to respond so badly explaining everything that’s wrong with the message of this photo and why it completely misses the point of racism. To say racism is a presentation issue is unfairly simplifying an extremely complicated problem. I wanted to ask him, “Do you not understand that life in this country is inherently different for white people and black people?” I wanted to ask how many close friends or coworkers he has that are a different race; how much effort he’s put into hearing the stories of Americans who are racially profiled every day of their lives; how often he fact checks content on Facebook before hitting the “share” button; how he can pride himself on being Christian yet choose to both follow and spread hatred and division instead of compassion and unity; or how someone who is unaffected by racism personally can make such a harsh and unfair generalization. Above all that though, I wanted to say, “You are not black. It is not okay for you to tell 40 million people how they experience life.”

To the photo’s credit, appearance does affect how we’re treated. There are hairstyles, clothing, and accessories that are synonymous with personality traits, jobs, gender, and more. But that’s not racism, that’s stereotyping, and there’s a definite difference. Stereotypes are generalizations about a group of people based on prior assumptions and can be related to any characteristic (like clothes). They can be both negative and positive. Racism is discrimination or prejudice based on race or ethnicity.

Let’s dissect the “black people should just dress and act better” argument that is popular on my social media feed right now.

Try Their Clothes On For Size

First, look at trending clothes white girls have been wearing the last couple of years…

Shorts with pockets hanging out of the front, holey jeans, combat boots, crop tops, worn-looking graphic tees, baggy sweatshirts, and sneakers are all in the wardrobes of white girls (and guys) across the country. I’m not implying there’s anything wrong with current fashion trends, I wear some of them myself, but when white girls dress homely it’s considered cute and fashionable. Put the same clothes on black skin and people tell a different story and make different assumptions. It’s ignorant to think a white person and a black person, even dressed the same, don’t experience a difference in how they are treated in life and what expectations are set for them literally from the day they’re born.

Then you have white people saying things like “OMG” and “give me the deets” and it’s perfectly acceptable, but black people use slang like “finna” instead of saying “gonna” (which is also slang mind you), and we cut them down and use it as ammo to blame them for their problems. Who are we to tell black people that they have to abide by white-people-approved clothing and speech, or even first names for that matter. Black American culture is different from ours. That doesn’t make it wrong. I’m not saying there is nothing the black community can do to make life better for future generations, but rejecting the role we’ve played historically and continue to play will never allow them to succeed.

The Aftermath of a Painful History

The second point is much more important to address, so I’m going to use the words of Echo Chambers editor Anthony Zurcher, who paraphrases the story titled The Case for Reparations:

Black culture is not to blame. The idea that if blacks could behave more “respectably” is a sham. “The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable,” Coates writes. “The essence of American racism is disrespect.”

The destruction of the black family has been a prime means of white control for hundreds of years. “America was built on the preferential treatment of white people – 395 years of it,” he writes.

When blacks moved to Northern cities as part of the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th Century, they faced a different kind of exploitation, he writes – discriminatory housing lenders and government policies designed to keep blacks confined to certain neighborhoods with fewer services, substandard schools and less opportunity.

“Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages,” he writes. “Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.”

Even on a national level, policies discriminated against blacks. The Federal Housing Authority refused to offer preferred loans to unstable – ie black – neighborhoods. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, including Social Security, was crafted to minimize benefits to blacks, he writes.

Although the overt discrimination has slowly been wiped away, by legislation or judicial action, the US is “still haunted,” he says.

“It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear,” he writes. “The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

Dismissing the legacy of slavery as something in the past or a stain upon American ancestors and not relevant to those alive today is a cop-out, he says: “A nation outlives its generations.”

Many people believe that America’s obligations to the descendants of slaves ended with the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, or in the 1960s when Jim Crow finally fell. Yet that, as Coates writes, is hardly the end of the story.

Reconstruction, America’s all too brief experiment in interracial democracy after the Civil War, was shattered by violence and terrorism. Black Americans were rendered back into an exploitative system of labor but a step away from slavery. Disenfranchisement immunized the American political system from being responsive to black interests, violence curtailed the ambition of those who would rise above their station, and those who escaped North found themselves fenced into ghettos and subject to what Coates calls legal plunder and the forces of a “free market” that appraised the value of homes and neighborhoods based on skin color.

The modern American middle class was built on government policies that deliberately enriched whites while excluding blacks, Coates writes.

(If you skipped past that block of text, please go back and read it.)

It’s extremely difficult to succeed in this country without a support system and some basic needs being met: healthcare, a proper education, money, caretakers who are present, law enforcement and a judiciary that protects you, positive expectations being set for you to fulfill, people who give you the benefit of the doubt, access to resources, positive influencers in your life, and on and on. Look how many people in this world have ALL those things and still struggle. Now imagine how different of a person you would be if you had just half or even none of them. And don’t give yourself too much credit and undervalue how essential those things are to your brain development, the way you think, the way you act, how you communicate and deal with conflict, what motivates you, what you’re exposed to, and the opportunities you have.

We created and placed black people into a system that was set up for them to fail generations ago. It’s had a domino effect that isn’t going to end without our help. Even though some parts of that system have changed, others have not.


We’re still living in a society that thinks if black lives matter, then white lives must matter less. It’s disappointing how white people play the victim in the Black Lives Matter movement by retaliating with “All Lives Matter.” Everyone knows that black people aren’t saying “Only black lives matter.” All they mean is that their lives matter, too – ie. in addition to white lives. Which makes the “all lives matter” response a moot point. And still, we needed to make the movement about us. This shows you the mentality of an entire country doesn’t just change within a few generations since slavery. We put ourselves on a higher pedestal ages ago and our government, policies, the wealth and education gap they created, along with our egos, have kept us there. Because of this, the world favors us in both large and small ways. White American people undervalue how advantageous it is just to be born with those two labels, and how much of a head start that gives us.

Despite this, I’ve actually heard white people say they feel discriminated against, too, by the African American community. Some arguments I’ve heard are that there are all-black colleges and Black Entertainment Television (BET) which are things that would be unspeakable if it were the other way around. It’s true; white people can’t have those things. But we don’t need them because we’re not the ones battling an issue here. We don’t need a “white entertainment” channel… we’ve got every channel already. We don’t need all-white colleges because white people aren’t underrepresented in schools. It’s not a problem for us.

As a woman working in technology, there are tons of conferences and programs I can join for “women in tech” or “girls who code” that are specific to females. Does that outrage men? No, at least not that I’m aware of. If men hosted a male-exclusive tech conference though, women would throw their hands up in fury. Why can’t they do it if we can? Well, the answer is because in the tech world women are the minority. Men aren’t lacking representatives and they don’t have trouble being accepted as legitimate in the industry. Women in the field struggle in ways men don’t, so it’s acceptable and necessary for us to assemble together and combat those issues. I can’t even imagine how frustrating it would be if people continuously refuted #WomenInTech with #AllGendersInTech. If that isn’t registering, imagine having cancer and people refuting #CancerSucks (also a movement) with #AllDiseasesSuck. And then multiply how ridiculous that would be by 400 years of injustices that blacks have dealt with in America.

Racism Affects Everyone

My non-white friends, both male and female, could write a book of examples of struggles and bigotry they face due to their race (not their clothes or behavior). Things white people don’t even have to think about because white people don’t notice they’re white. Seriously, our skin color is something that rarely occurs to us. Black people, however, are constantly reminded that they’re black – they feel their skin color all the time.

A few weeks ago, I was walking home from work in downtown Chicago, and I noticed a black woman two blocks ahead standing on the corner trying to get the attention of pedestrians walking by. Not one person paused for a second to hear her request. She was a middle-aged lady wearing a long winter coat and carrying a handbag like every other woman on the street. When she approached me she was looking for directions to catch a bus nearby. I wasn’t familiar with the bus number she was asking about, so my first thought was to ask someone who might be. It didn’t occur to me until after I walked away that I was able to successfully stop the first two people who passed by on that same street corner without the slightest bit of effort. I didn’t receive any cold shoulders or derogatory looks from bystanders. People didn’t think twice about helping me. The black woman, on the other hand, was completely ignored by at least dozen people. I thought about all the times I rely on strangers for help when I’m traveling and exploring new cities and I couldn’t think of one time I struggled finding it. I wondered if that would be the case if I was black, and I have to admit, probably not. I wondered if this woman even realized how easy it is for me to gain people’s trust and respect. She’s likely aware, but I think she’d be as surprised walking a day in my shoes as I would be walking a day in hers.

White people love to say “I’m not racist” and they truly believe they aren’t, but racism isn’t always obvious and loud. It’s important to understand that racism is just as often subtle and subliminal and sometimes even unintentional. “Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world.” (Scott Woods)

Good Cop/Bad Cop

In the case of law enforcement, there are obviously racist cops doing some terrible things to black people intentionally. And of course, there are even more who aren’t. However, less headline-worthy are the daily occurrences that continue to show how the people sworn to protect us all equally are quicker to suspect, charge, and use violence against people of color regardless of how innocent the act. At the same time, white people continue to go unchecked or are let off the hook for similar and even worse acts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that cops, for example, consciously think to themselves, “I’m going to get him because he’s black.” The reasons they’re quicker to assume fault of a black person isn’t always personal as much as it’s societal.

Think about the importance of law enforcement in a community – people we can trust and rely on to be the good guys. We all want and need that. Remember though, black people want and need that, too. And time and time again they’re not getting it the same way white people are. Now, they’re not claiming ALL cops are bad, but the trust is so damaged they don’t know which ones are going to help, do nothing at all, or even harm them.

Changing Our Response

Understand though that anti-racism efforts aren’t just about cops. They are fighting carryover effects from a preferential system that started generations ago. One that affects their ability to have the basic ingredients for success that I listed above. Sadly, this makes change very difficult to accomplish – but not impossible. However, no change will ever be made if we don’t help them get there. We can start by acknowledging racism as a problem, empathizing with their struggles, responding to injustices with nothing other than disgust and sadness, and standing by them to push for change. When black people are peacefully protesting with “black lives matter” signs and hashtags, we need to respond with “we hear you” instead of hitting them back with “all lives matter.” When NFL players bend a knee at a football game, or NBA players wear t-shirts over their uniforms before a game, or the cast of Hamilton addresses their audience at the end of a show, all to make a statement (peacefully) surrounding heinous racist acts, we need to feel their pain and anger instead of criticizing them and twisting their intentions. We need to stop reversing who the victim is and start responding with compassion and empathy. How is it we can look back on Martin Luther King in hindsight and glorify him for his radical efforts knowing he was one of the most hated men in America during his time, so much that he was murdered, and yet shame and argue against those who are continuing his same efforts to bring light to racism today?

I realize some of you reading this might not be Jon Stewart fans and that’s okay, but he did a piece called “Race/Off” showing clips of how upset Christians got over events surrounding their beloved Christmas holiday. This was even before the Starbucks red cup war:

“If you can, just imagine that instead of having to suffer the indignity of a Festivus Pole blocking a nativity scene you could have just set up in your own yard anyway, imagine that instead of that, on a pretty consistent basis, you can’t get a cab even though you’re a neurosurgeon because you’re black. I guarantee you that every person of color in this country has faced an indignity, from the ridiculous to the grotesque to the sometimes fatal, at some point in their – I’m going to say – last couple of hours because of their skin color. Race is there, and it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how f*cking exhausting it is living it.”